Saturday, August 25, 2007

The job isn't done until the paperwork is finished

One of the advantages of being a "small pistol" station is that I don't worry about how to deal with the thousands of QSL card requests that some of the "big gun" contest stations and DXpeditions have to deal with. Over the past year, I made a bit over 1700 QSOs, which includes my operation from the Cayman Islands and any contests I've been in. I've never tried to figure out what percentage of stations I contact that I "need" for some award (DXCC, WAS, IOTA, etc.), but at this point in my ham career, I'm sure it's not a big percentage. (I should clarify that last statement: It's not that I don't wish that I had a higher percentage of "new ones", it's just becoming harder and harder to find and work them.)

However, one thing that I've always made it a point to do is to make sure that if I get a QSL card from someone, they get a card back from me. For those cards that come "direct" (which means that someone has mailed their card directly to me, just like you'd mail a letter to someone), they'll get a card back direct, usually within a day of my receiving their card. Often, the sender with include an SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope) or at least an SAE (self-addressed envelope), though sometimes they don't. Again, I don't send out that many cards, so I don't mind paying the return postage; it's part of the cost of being active in the hobby. (One of these days I'll pull up my soapbox and complain about those stations who don't seem willing to return a QSL card to me, even when they are stations in countries, often the US, that have a reliable postal system so I know they got the card, and when I've included an SASE or SAE plus postage; but that's something for another time.)

When I receive a QSL card request for a contact that I've made from my home station, I just reach into the box of cards that I had printed (by The QSL Man, W4MPY, who I highly recommend), fill it out, and send it back, usually the same day that I receive the card. Because I figured that I'd eventually use up a bunch of my "regular use" card, I had a couple of thousand of them printed up professionally, which means that they tend to look nicer than they would if I'd printed them myself, plus the per-card price is cheaper. The only problem with having cards professionally printed is that if you aren't going to have it done in quantity, it winds up being pretty expensive on a per-card basis. There are a couple of companies that will do small runs (100; a normal printing run is 1000 or more) of cards, but they are usually limited in what kinds of designs they'll do. For my Cayman trip, I made about 120 total QSOs. I'm guessing that at most, I'd have no more than 50 or so requests for cards, so even doing a batch of 100 commercially doesn't make a lot of sense.

So, as with my previous trip to the Outer Banks and to Lido Key, I decided that I'd design and print up the cards myself. For those trips, I took a few pictures and made up cards using some pictures from the trips along with the appropriate text/ I use Adobe Photoshop Elements which is more than powerful enough for something like this. (It's gotten somewhat more expensive than when I first bought it; I think I paid something like $20 or $30 for version 2.0; looks like it's now around $80 for verison 5.0, but there are plenty of alternatives.) The front of the card just has the basic information, and I use a regular word processor to set up a QSO table and any other info that I want to print on the back of the card. Everything is set to print on inkjet or laser postcards that will print four to a sheet. I used some card stock from Staples, but I sure there are alternatives. The tricky part is getting them to run through the printer the right way so that I get the QSO info on the back more or less lined up correctly on the back so that it's centered on the card. After I've gotten the cards printed, I separate them and then I usually need to trim them a bit. A standard QSL card looks like it's about 5 7/16" (13.8cm) x 3.5" (8.9cm), but in order to fit my cards on the stock that I use, mine wind up as 5.25" (13.335 cm) x 3.5" (8.9cm). When I pull them apart, there's a little room left over on each card, which I trim off. Not only does it look nice, but it's then close enough to a standard size to fit easily into most envelopes.

I'd originally hoped to make a lot more QSOs than I did on my Cayman trip (for reasons that I've described ad nauseum in previous posts here), but the only impact that had on my QSLing is that it meant that I won't be having the cards professionally printed. So, as with the previous cards, the hard part was actually sitting down and doing the card design. I will freely admit that I am not the best (ok, I'm probably one of the worst) graphic designers in existence, but I've pretty much figured out a template to use, which is to use a large background picture and have one or more inset photos. I finally figured out what to use for this trip, and after spending a bit of time juggling the images around (plus with some advice from my younger son Brett, who is far less "graphically challenged" than I am, along with my older son Justin, KC2MCS, and of course my XYL Sharon), I've finally come up with a card design that I'm reasonably happy with, which is shown here. This is still a draft, and I realized that I needed to add in the IOTA reference, which is required in order to be valid for IOTA award purposes. I'll take care of that as soon as I finish writing this entry, set up the reverse side, and try to get the cards printed this week. I've got about a dozen folks who sent cards direct and I'm feeling a bit guilty that I haven't been able to respond yet.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Maryland-DC QSO Party

This is a kind of "leftover" item from a couple of weeks ago, but this was a pretty quiet week from a radio perspective. A little over a week ago (August 11 & 12) was the Maryland-DC QSO Party (or MDC QSO Party). Like most other contests, the object is to contact as many other stations as you can within the parameters of the contest. In this case, what's special is that if your station is physically located in either the state of Maryland or in Washington, DC, you can contact any other station for points. If you're outside of the MDC area, you can only contact stations within MDC for credit. Most states have their own "QSO Party" contests, and some of them, like the California QSO Party and the Florida QSO Party are very popular, with hundreds or thousands of in-state participants. Others aren't so popular, and only attract a relatively small number of in-state participants. (Unfortunately, it seems that in my home state, the New Jersey QSO Party seems to fall in the latter category; it's usually the same weekend as a big national contest, the North American QSO Party, and I think that the NAQP draws away some of the participants.) Sometimes, these state QSO parties have special rules that make them more fun. The MDC QP is one of those.

The special thing for the MDC QP is that you get different points for working different types of stations, and for using morse code instead of voice. For this contest, you get 10 points for working a "club station" (which is a station operated by members of a radio club), 5 points for working a "mobile station", which is (generally speaking) a station that's operated from a vehicle, though frequently one that's not in motion while participating, 4 points for a station that's using low power (5 watts or less, what hams call "QRP"), 3 points for a station using morse code, and one point for all other stations. (You can only choose one category to claim credit, so for instance, if there was a mobile, low-power club station using morse code you don't get to add all the points up.) It's a little complicated, but the good news is that you don't have to worry about figuring out the score until the contest is over. Like other contests, there's something called a "multiplier", which is used in the score computation. For MDC, the multipliers are the counties in Maryland plus Washington DC plus Baltimore City. (If you're outside of the MDC area, you also have multipliers for each state, Canadian provinces, and foreign countries. Because of this pretty major difference in scoring, the ranking of stations for MDC and non-MDC stations are kept separate.)

With all of that said, one of the nicer things about the sort of "medium-sized" QSO parties is that there's enough competition to make it interesting (you want to have other stations to make contacts with, after all!), but not so much that small stations, like mine, can't be heard. (That's one of the problems with the really big contests; although the "big guns" need to work everyone you can, including me, you spend a lot more time trying to attract attention to yourself.) With these smaller contests, it's just plain fun for me, which, as I've said, is sort of what the hobby is all about. I am definitely not a serious contester, and while it's fun to have a good score, I haven't yet gotten to the point of never getting up from the chair during the contest (there are those who literally don't get up; I'll leave it to the reader to figure out what that means over the course of 12, 24, or 48 hours). So, when conditions are good and there are lots of stations to contact, I'll make contacts. When conditions are poor, I'll find something else to do. This year's MDC QSO Party was a perfect example of this.

Because of the way radio propagation works, radio signals travel different distances depending on what frequency (or band) is being used. Certain bands work best at particular times of the day, which unfortunately sometimes means that the best bands to use to contact a station at a particular distance just isn't available. From my house in NJ, the two sets of frequencies that work best to contact stations in the MDC area are known as the 40m band (roughly 7Mhz) and 80m band (roughly 3.5Mhz). Unfortunately 80m isn't really very good during the daylight hours, and 40m just plain didn't want to cooperate during the contest, especially on Saturday.

I wasn't really home Saturday night very much, so I only wound up making 22 contacts during the entire contest, with about 2/3s on 40m (mostly Sunday afternoon) and the rest on 80m (a bit on Saturday night, and a bit on Sunday night). My total score was around 2200 points, which is nothing to write home about, but I had fun doing it. I got to chat with a bunch of folks (when the operators on both ends know that they aren't going to be making thousands of contacts, there's time to chat), ran into one or two people that I'd spoken with before, and even made some contacts with a couple of interesting club stations, including the club stations for the Voice Of America, K3VOA.

To me, this is what ham radio is about.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Holy Cow, I won!

So just when I thought I'd have nothing to blog about this week, I opened up today's mail and found the certificate for first place in the 2nd Call Area for the 2007 SMIRK contest! You may recall that I posted about this contest a while back, and I wasn't even going to send in my log because I figured it wasn't worth it. Well, I guess it was worth it! By the way, the certificate has my SMIRK number as None because my number (6759) hadn't been issued until after I participated in the contest.

In case you're interested, here is the complete list of winners for the 2007 SMIRK contest. Congratulations to all!