Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Getting the blog delivered to you

Just a quick note about a new feature I've added here. If you like, you can now sign up to have new blog entries mailed to you. Look for the box on the right of this website titled "Subscribe via email" and enter your email address. The email service is run by Feedburner, which is owned by Google. I trust their privacy policy (which basically says that your email address won't be used for anything other than emailing you updates), but if you're not comfortable with that, of course you're welcome to come back and visit the website the "old fashioned" way in your browser.

Personally, I read most blogs using an RSS Reader, which I find a lot more convenient, since it delivers updated info to me, I don't have to go get it. I currently use RSS Bandit, a standalone tool that sits on your PC, but there are many, many other choices, including online readers such as the Google Reader.

We now return your to your regularly scheduled blog topic.

Monday, October 22, 2007

This post has no title

It's a potpourri blog entry this week, several random bits and pieces.

Fellow blogger Scott, NE1RD, will be active from St. Kitts (V4) as V4/NE1RD starting this week. He'll be operating in CQ Worldwide SSB contest next weekend (low power, not QRP, as was incorrectly reported elsewhere) and will be on the air outside the contest as well. I've mentioned this a number of times already, but he's written extensively about his preparations for this trip at his regular blog (100 Pound DXpedition) as well as the separate The 100 Pound DXpedition to St. Kitts website.

Speaking of CQWW, that's one of the "biggie" contests, and while I'll probably "play around" a bit, I don't expect to put too much time for a couple of reasons: First, the band conditions remain awful. That means that a small station like mine, which is relatively weak, has an even harder-than-normal time trying to make any contacts at all. I know that my station is not competitive, and I do not expect to win anything in this kind of contest (despite previous comments to the contrary, for the really big contests, it's pretty darn tough to win anything because of all the competition), but I do like to be on the air. However, it gets frustrating when I can't even work anyone, or it takes me 15 minutes to work a run-of-the-mill station, repeatedly calling. None of that means that I won't try, it's just that it's a whole lot more fun when I'm actually making contacts. The second issue is that I've got a bunch of family obligations this weekend which are going to cut big gaps into my operating time. As I said, I'll be out there, just not as much as I'd like to be.

Despite the band conditions, I have been able to work some interesting DX. Over the past couple of days, I've worked 5L2MS from Liberia on several new bands, and also the C52C group in The Gambia as well. Neither of those were new countries for me, but I did pick up a couple of new CW bands for C5, and several new bands with the folks from 5L2MS. The latter group is still operational, and I'd like to try to pick them up in a few other places. Both groups seemed to be well organized and had surprising good signals to my location.

Part of the reason that I was able to work both of these stations is that I like to think that I'm working smarter, not harder (harder=more power, better antennas, etc.) Not that I wouldn't mind the "harder", but that's not what I've got. To reiterate what many (including me) have said before, you need to listen before you try to transmit. In both of these cases, I was able to find a pattern where the operator was listening (like most DXpeditions, they operated split, meaning that the operator transmitted on one frequency while listening over a range of other frequencies for those stations calling), either noting that he'd move up then down, or all the way up, then start from the bottom of the range again, etc. It's very satisfying when you're able to "bust" a big pileup by quite literally being in the right place at the right time.

One last item is that I did something yesterday that I don't do very much: I had a nice ragchew with Ian, GI3ZDE in Northern Ireland. I've heard Ian many times before, mostly on 20m, but never really "stopped by" to chat. Yesterday, I saw him spotted on 17m, so I tuned in to listen while doing some work on the computer, and after he finished a couple of contacts, I figured I'd say hello. We probably spoke for about 10 or 15 minutes, and might have gone a bit longer but the band was starting to drop out (in fact, within a few minutes of completing our QSO, I couldn't hear him at all as he continued to work other stations). I was trying to figure out how many contest or short DX contacts it would take to fill 15 minutes of operating, but decided that was a pretty pointless activity. It was just nice to chat with a fellow ham on the other side of the Atlantic, talking about something totally unimportant.

And that too is what ham radio is all about.

Monday, October 15, 2007

You'll never know unless you try

Two weekends ago, I participated in the California QSO Party contest. As I've mentioned in the past (here and here), I like to play around in these contests because they are usually a bit lower-key than the really big contests, and sometimes, you actually might win something. Even if you don't win anything, it's something to do, and helps keeps the bands active. As hams, it's up to us to keep the activity going, because if we don't, there are plenty of commercial entities who would love to grab parts of the spectrum that is allocated to Amateur Radio. The CQP is one of (if not the) best run QSO parties, with all kinds of information available online and tons of activity.

As I mentioned in my entry entitled "It takes patience", trying to bounce your electrons off the ionosphere can be particularly difficult during this point in the solar cycle. Regardless of what the propagation numbers say, it's a fact that you will not make any contacts on a given band regardless of the predictions if you don't try. So, sometimes you have to try something that you think might not work, because there's a chance that it will.

One of the things that I've read about contesting is that you need to plan your strategy carefully to maximize your score. For contests, like the CQP, where you can work the same station on both different bands and different modes for credit, it makes sense to at least try to get an edge somewhere by checking out all (or almost all) the bands. Normally for the CQP, my "meat and potatoes" band had been 20m during the day. Unfortunately, the band conditions were just awful and I was having a lot of trouble being heard, even on CW. (And yes, I did actually did about 2/3 of my contacts on CW, which helped my score since CW contacts were worth 3 points versus phone contacts being worth 2). I decided that since wasn't making very many contacts anyway, I might as well try other bands.

At the peak of the solar cycle (or at least not down here in the trough), I would have had my fill of stations on 10m, but there was just nothing there. Next up was 15m and somewhat surprisingly, there were stations out there to work. They weren't strong, but there wasn't nearly as much competition, and the band was quieter. As a result, I made almost 20% of my total contacts on 15m, at a time when the W6ELprop predicted that there was essentially a zero chance of the band being open between my location and California. The important point is that if I hadn't tuned to 15m and listened, I never wouldn't have known.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

New and improved contest tips from K9JY

As I mentioned several weeks ago, during the month of September, Scot, K9JY, published a terrific set of contesting tips on his blog. To help make things a bit easier, Scot recently consolidated those tips into a single index page titled 30 Days — 30 Ham Radio Contesting Tips with a brief description of each tip and a link to the original full-length tip. If you didn't see all the tips the first time, please be sure to go and read them.

Even if you did see all the tips the first time, go back and read them again. I just did!

Friday, October 05, 2007

What goes up, must come down

As they say, what goes up, must come down. Fortunately, sometimes, what goes down sometimes goes back up. I'll explain.

Back in April or May, a pretty nasty storm
came through here. A mature tree (I think it was some variety of oak, but I'm really not sure) got blown down. Fortunately, that tree was at the edge of the woods behind our house and blew over back into the woods, well away from any buildings or cars. Because the ground was very soft at the time, the entire tree blew over, pulling the root system out of the ground, and leaving it just sitting there, with a pretty deep hole where the roots had been before. There was no real rush to do anything about it, but Sharon and I decided that we'd like to get it cut up for cosmetic reasons, as well as allowing the base to fall back into the hole, which kept filling up with just enough water to attract mosquitoes. Sharon called a local tree company and told them what we wanted to have done. Because there were a lot of higher-priority jobs, they told us it might be a little while until they were able to get to the tree.

"A little while" can mean all kinds of different things, and the frame of reference has a lot to do with this. I'll spare you the usual comparisons other than to say that on a geologic scale, it was even less than "a little while" until the tree company came. However, on a conventional day-to-day life scale, I think I'm safe in assuming that waiting from May until October 5 for the tree compa
ny to show up is probably more than "a little while".

As it turns out, there was a good side to them not showing up until today. Another tree, on the edge of the woods, had died at some point in the relatively recent past, and was starting to look like it might decide to come down on its own. Since one of the two main trunks was tilting towards our house, we decided that it'd probably be a good idea to have it taken down professionally, rather than allowing it to fall. Since the guys were already out cutting up the first tree, they gave us a good price to cut down the other tree. (Oh yeah, the other good thing about them not showing up until today was that I decided, pretty much for no reason, that I'd work from home today, so I was at home when they showed up.)

(I don't usually go this long without reference to radio, but I'll bet someone may have figured out
what's coming next). So here's the radio tie-in: One end of my G5RV passed through the branches of the dead tree. I had originally hope to just lower both ends of the antenna enough to get out of the way, but Tom (the foreman) pointed out that since it was still draped through the branches, it would have been destroyed when he started dropping limbs. My big concern was that if I had to drop it all the way down and pull down the support ropes, that I wouldn't be able to get it back up in the air again. (When it was originally put up, a bunch of guys from the local radio club came over, including one with a bow and arrow, who did the trick.) Tom assured me that he'd get it back up in the tree, and since the tree had to come down, meaning the G5RV had to come with it, I really had no choice.

As you can see from the photo, Tom (that's him in the tree) climbed up and cut off a bunch of larger
limbs so there wasn't much left by the time it was time to cut the trunks. He used a pair of climbing spikes, and I figured he'd do the same to get the support rope for the G5RV back up to where it was. It turns out that he had an easier way, one that I'd seen Scott, NE1RD mention in his blog not long ago.

Tom went back to the truck and returned with what's called a throwbag, which I've got pictured
here. Basically, this is a small pouch that (in this case) has 16 ounces (about 454 grams) of lead shot pellets inside. It's connected to some lightweight and very slippery line, which won't get easily snagged on leaves and branches. What you do is to toss this over a branch, and because the bag is heavy enough, it'll drop down through the branches. You tie your antenna support line to the end of the yellow throwbag line, and pull your antenna into the air. It's remarkably simple, safe (yes, if you hit someone with the bag it's going to hurt a bit, but unless you're very unlucky there won't be any permanent damage to either party), and pretty inexpensive. I found one (pictured here) at the Bartlett Manufacturing website which costs about $17 including 100 feet of line. (I didn't really shop around, there might be better deals elsewhere).

I would have probably have tried to swing it around and toss it up, but Tom used a different
technique. He used the same sort of motion that you'd use when throwing a basketball free-throw shot underhand, rocking back and forth a few times, and then throwing. I think that part of the reason he used that particular motion is because he didn't have a lot of space to work in. The limb that he was aiming for is behind the tree that he's on in the picture, and in order to get over and under the proper branches, he had to get a pretty specific trajectory. It took him several tries, but he managed to get it over a limb that he guessed was about 50 feet in the air. (I'd say it was a good guess, since after the throwbag came down, the 100 foot rope had about half of it on one side of the limb, and about half on the other, with both ends just barely on the ground; even I can divide 100 by 2!). I told him that was amazed at how he was able to get it over the branch, and he said that he was embarrassed because he can usually hit just about anything he wants in one try. Granted he is a professional, but it's still impressive.

One other good thing came out of taking down the antenna. I was able to examine the wire and the support line, which I normally can't see very well, being up in the air and all. The wire looked surprisingly good, and most of the support line was fine, with one exception: About a foot past
where the support rope tied to the insulator, it must have been rubbing on a branch, because it was fairly well worn. I don't know how long it might have stayed up there before breaking, but given that I had some new support line available, I took advantage of the opportunity and decided to replace the old line with new. I've thought about replacing the support line as preventative maintenance anyway, but hadn't planned on doing it on virtually no notice. I was lucky that I had some of the original line that I'd bought when I first put the G5RV up (I had no idea at the time how much I'd need, I think I bought something like 500 feet; all told, I probably used about 200, much of which is coiled up on the eyebolts in the tree where it's tied off. I don't need that much when it's in the air, but I do need it for the rare occasion when the antenna needs to come down.) If this had happened a few days later, I would have picked up some of that nice dark line that's always available at hamfest (the BARA hamfest is tomorrow, as it turns out), but I was happy to have anything on hand.

So, in my case, what went up, came down, but went right back up again. The antenna works just fine (in fact, it might be just a bit higher because the support line is no longer hung up on some branches from the now-removed tree) I was only off the air for a few hours, and I don't have to worry about that particular tree falling on my house.