Sunday, December 06, 2009

My first 160m contest

If you asked me a couple of years ago whether I'd ever participate in a contest on 160 meters I'm sure I would have said no. If you'd asked me two weeks ago, I would have said no. In fact, I did say no, answering the weekly ARRL website survey. It turns out that I was mistaken.

The main reason why I never expected to participate in a contest on 160m is because I really don't use the 160m band very much. The two reasons why I tend to stay away are because I don't really have a very good antenna for that band, and because the relatively few times that I've been on it's always been horribly noisy (mostly from atmospheric noise, though perhaps there's some man-made electronic noise there as well.) The reason for the lack of a decent antenna is that antennas for that band tend to be very, very long. As a reminder, 160 meters is about 525 feet. Although you don't need an antenna that long to transmit on the band, what I do have in place (my G5RV antenna) is really too short to operate properly on that band. I can use the antenna tuner in my radio to cause the radio to think that the antenna is suitable for use on that band, but in reality there's a lot of loss and my signal just isn't very strong. Despite the relatively short antenna length, I do manage to pick up an awful lot of noise.

160m is primarily a nighttime band. Although you can make groundwave (those that don't bounce off the ionosphere) contacts during the day, the band is even noiser during the day and it's just not practical to try to make a lot of contacts. (That's not to say that the hardcore contesters aren't out there trying.) The fact that it's a late-night band worked to my benefit, since I'm a nightowl.

The 160m contest starts at 5PM local time on a Friday and ends at 11AM local Sunday morning. I was chatting with my friend Larry, N4VA Friday afternoon, and he suggested that I try to make a few contacts in the contest. I was going to be home anyway (my son was recovering from a minor surgical procedure) so I figured that I'd at least listen and see if I could hear anything other than static.

By the time I started to listen, it was around 5:30PM local time, which is after dark at this time of the year and 30 minutes past the contest starting time. I was surprised to hear that not only were there a lot of strong signals, but where nobody was transmiting, the band was actually relatively quiet. I figured that I'd see if I could get the antenna to tune and maybe make a few contacts, "giving out points" to others in the contest.

I was surprised that for the first hour, I made around 20 contacts (and that includes a break for dinner; as I mentioned, I wasn't really expecting to spend a lot of time in the contest.) What was even more surprising was that for the 4th hour of the contest, I was up to 33 contacts for that hour and 30 the next hour. (All those contacts were "search & pounce", I wasn't going to attempt to run stations.) While this isn't "super-station rate", those 63 contacts are 3 more contacts than I'd made in total on the 160m band prior to the contest. I continued to operate for a while, taking a few breaks and turned in relatively early Friday night. (I'd been up since 6:30 AM for my son's procedure).

Late Saturday afternoon, I made another handful of contacts, and then, after we came back from dinner with friends, I got back on the air at 1AM (now Sunday morning) and picked up another 17 stations in that hour. At that point, tuning up and down the band all I was hearing for the most part were stations that I'd already worked, which meant it was tough to find "fresh meat" to work. I figured that I'd try to find a frequency to "run" stations, which means that instead of me trying to find stations who are calling CQ, I'd find a frequency and call CQ myself.

If you're not a contester yourself, I should explain that in most contests, it's generally the "big guns" (more powerful stations) that "run" other stations. For one thing, it's generally easier to hear their signals, and for another, it's a lot tougher for another station to just jump on top of them and start CQing, "stealing" their frequency. Having your frequency "stolen" is unethical and could theoretically be illegal. For US hams, the FCC says that you cannot intentionally interfere with another station, but in a contest, it's very difficult to prove (especially for a weak station) since when a stronger station "takes over" your frequency they can simply say they never heard you. That might or might not be true, but it's hard to prove. The simple thing to do, for a "little pistol" station like me, is to simply move elsewhere.

Fortunately me for me, for the 2AM (local time) hour, I was lucky enough to get a frequency pretty low in the band (1808 mHz) and actually keep that frequency for over an hour. (Lower in the frequency is better, usually, since other operators who get on the band to make a few contacts typically start at the lower end of the band and work their way up.) Remember that his is now 2AM local, and most of the stations that I was working were relatively local, within a timezone or two of me. While I didn't set any rate records, over the next hour I worked almost 30 stations, which was just for me a lot of fun. I probably could have kept going, but at about 3:15 AM I decided that I'd had enough fun and shut down the radio.

Overall, I wound up working 251 stations (plus 2 "dupes" who I'd previously worked but who called me when I was "running"). Most of the stations that I worked were in the US or Canada, but I did work stations in Jamaica (6Y), the Bahamas (C6), Netherlands Anitilles (PJ), Turks and Caico (VP6) and possibly (the contact was a little "iffy", hopefully I am in his log) Martinique (FM). In total, I worked stations in 43 ARRL or RAC sections pluss the 5 other countries), which I thought was pretty respectable.

My final claimed score looks like this:
    Band    QSOs    Pts  Sec
1.8 251 517 48

Score : 24,816
I don't think I'm going to win any awards, but I've very pleased with my results. And, as I've said in the past, the most important thing is that I had a lot of fun.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Reciprocity sometimes isn't reciprocal; Why I didn't operate from Mexico

I recently returned from a vacation in Mexico. We stayed at a beautiful resort in Nuevo Vallarta, just north of better-known Puerto Vallarta, and although there was plenty to do there (including doing nothing but lying around the pool sipping a cold drink), one thing that I was unable to do was to bring along my ham radio gear and operate. Although weight restrictions and the cost for additional bags are a concern, that wasn't the issue. As with my trip to Grand Cayman a couple of years ago, I can fit most everything into either a backpack (to be used as a carry-on) or in between the bathing suits and t-shirts. The issue was that while there is a "bilateral reciprocal operating agreement" with Mexico, in this case the rules for Mexican amateurs operating within the US are very different than the rules for American amateurs operating in Mexico.

Here's what the ARRL says (in part) about foreign amateurs operating in the US:
...if your country of citizenship and amateur license share a bilateral Reciprocal Operating Agreement with the US, the FCC allows foreign amateurs to operate with no permit. Simply carry your foreign amateur license and proof of your citizenship in that country. Identify using "W" and the number of the FCC call letter district in which you are operating followed by a slash and your non-US call sign, e.g. W3/G1ABC).
So this means that if XE9ZZ comes to the US and wishes to operate from my home state of New Jersey, he could get on the air and simply identify as W2/XE9ZZ. There are no forms to fill out, no visits to the FCC, no copies of passport pages or visas, and assuming that you are a Class I licensee in Mexico, you'll have all the operating privileges of a US Amateur Extra license. I think that this is how things should work.

Unfortunately, for a US amateur to operate in Mexico a lot more paperwork, time, and money are involved. The detailed process has been explained very nicely on a page on DL6KAC's web site and there is a lot of additional information available on WD9EWK's site as well. To try to summarize the process briefly (and I'm glossing over a lot of the details), you need to fill out some forms, send in a bunch of documentation, including the application itself, a copy of your passport, a copy of your visa (which is issued when you enter the country as a tourist, which means you can't really apply before you get there), a copy of your ham radio license, and information that proves that you have paid for the license. (You do this through a bank in Mexico). The current fee is 1025 pesos, which at the present time is about US$75. Of course, all the forms are in Spanish and translated copies are not acceptable, except if the particular official decides otherwise. (To be fair, this is reasonable, since Spanish is the official language in Mexico). Fortunately, US hams do not have to get a letter of invitation from a Mexican ham (non-US hams do), although I think that would be a relatively easy thing to get.

After you get all of that together, you either mail it or hand deliver it to the proper address (which is especially challenging if you don't happen to be located in Mexico City), and then you wait.

As best I can tell, it can then take around 60 days to get your license, which is mailed to you at your address in Mexico. All of this makes it rather difficult for a casual tourist such as myself to operate from Mexico. To even have a chance of getting a license I'd have to find someone located within Mexico who'd be willing to handle some of these details for me, and I still can't quite figure out how I'd get a visa in advance of actually being in the country. I suppose that if you spend a signficant amount of time there (a lot of Americans and Canadians have homes in and around Puerto Vallarta, and I'm sure elsewhere), then it would probably be worth the effort to do this.

By the way, once you get your license, you have the privileges of a Mexican Class I license (their highest-level license), but there are some restrictions: Unless you specifically ask for permission, you can't operate from any Mexican Island, you cannot operate in a contest, nor can you be part of a DXpedition. (I'm not quite sure how simply visiting is different from a DXpedition.) Also, you must use your callsign as provided on that permit with an additional suffix if you travel outside of the callsign area for which it was issued. For instance, if I was issued XE2/K2DBK it would be fine to operate from Puerto Vallerta, but if I decided to visit Cancun, I'd have to identify as XE2/K2DBK/XE3. (Good thing you can't operate in contests, that's quite a mouthful!)

Clearly every country is going to have different rules governing their amateur radio service. It would be nicer if the processes were truly reciprocal.

Friday, October 30, 2009

What is Amateur Radio?

Not long ago, I added a feature to my Facebook page that automatically posted these blog updates there. While many of my friends know that amateur radio is a hobby for me, I do get asked "so exactly what does that mean?" fairly often. Although there are a number of sites that explain it, Julian, G4ILO, wrote up what I think is a terrific primer on the subject that I hope will help some of you get an answer to that question. Here's a link to his site:

Friday, October 23, 2009

Remembering the C6APR team

In case you haven't already heard, four of the operators of the C6APR station were tragically killed this week in a plane crash on their way to the station. Ward Silver, N0AX posted the following message to the CQ-CONTEST reflector, which I'm going to reprint here.

There have been several suggestions for on-the-air actions to remember the four ops lost on their way to C6APR yesterday. Perhaps a moment of radio silence - at the beginning of the contest or perhaps around the time of their flight. Or look back in your log to find the time of your most recent contact with them and take that moment out then. Maybe call C6APR at some appropriate time and wait for their signal. Putting a C6APR QSO in your log with a zone of 00 is another idea - I know that K7RA used show up in logs from the Pac NW for years after Homer's untimely demise. Whatever seems appropriate to you, take some time out during the contest to not only remember the team, but to appreciate the other competitors. Let's try to treat each other with a little extra respect this coming weekend as we've all just been reminded of how quickly a log can close.

73, Ward N0AX

Saturday, October 10, 2009

More DX during the solar minimum

Despite the poor propagation conditions occurring during the current solar minimum (which I, and practically every other ham has written about ad nauseam), I continue to make some good, and sometimes outstanding DX contacts. A couple of weeks ago, I had a CW contact with Richard, 9M2CNC in West Malaysia on 20m at around 8pm local time. While I'd worked West Malaysia before (in fact with Richard as well, then operating as 9M2/G4ZFE during an RTTY contest), that was the first CW contact that I had with that DXCC entity. I'm happy to say that the contact has been confirmed via Logbook of the World already.

Yesterday afternoon, I was working from home and took and saw a spot for Bill, E51NOU on 17m CW. The interesting thing was that it was the middle of the afternoon (not normally a good time for propagation to that part of the world), but I was easily able to make the contact.

Best of all, early this afternoon, I saw some spots for Wim, XU7TZG in Cambodia on 20m phone. The time was around 1PM local time, which means it was around midnight in Cambodia, late for this type of contact. I tuned to the frequency and was surprised to hear Wim working a (surprisingly small) pileup. I needed a contact with Cambodia as an "all-time new one" for DXCC purposes, so I figured that I might as well try to call him. Wim slowly worked the pile down (presumably getting the stronger stations out of the way), and after 30 minutes or so, I was very pleased him respond to my call, and the contact was completed.

All three of the contacts I've just discussed were made under fairly poor solar conditions. The solar conditions when I worked Wim in Cambodia were about as bad as you can get. The solar flux number was 69, which I believe is the minimum value possible (I'll have to go read up and see why it doesn't go to zero) and there were no sunspots at all. Both of those values indicate poor propagation. Fortunately, like the
urban legend (check out that link, it's a good explanation of that legend) that says that it's aerodynamically impossible for bees to fly, radio waves don't bother to listen to scientists nor do they study physics.

As I've said before: Stop complaining about how poor the conditions are. Turn on your radio. Listen around and if you don't hear anything, call CQ. You might be surprised at the kind of wonderful contacts you can make.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Scandinavian Activity Contest

After an unusually stressful week at work, I thought that I might try to find some time to participate in the CQ WW DX RTTY contest between taking care of some errands and other "weekend things". As it turns out, I didn't do that, but I made around 40 contacts in the Scandinavian Activity Contest. The folks participating in that contest were very friendly, with a few occasionally stopping to briefly chat, inquire about how their signal sounded, and even tell me that I had a good signal. (That's always nice to hear.) Since I hadn't planned on participating in the contest, I looked only briefly at the rules and had to check their website to see how to submit my log. For folks submitting a Cabrillo format log (which most contesters using an electronic log will do), they provide a simple form where you can upload your log. The r
eally slick thing is that as soon as you upload it, they do an immediate syntax check (so you'll know if there are any errors), then post your claimed score on their website along with everyone else in your category.

I submitted as Outside Europe, Single Operator, Multi-band, low power and I guess I'm kind of in the middle of the pack at the moment. Of course, this is subject to log checking (I may have made an error logging a station or two) and it will change as others submit their logs, but it's nice to get immediate feedback. Another excellent use of technology by the contest organizers.

One nice side-effect of just "playing around" in the contest was that I did not only work OH0Z on Aland Island on 75m, but as soon as I uploaded my log to Logbook of The World this afternoon I got a confirmation of that contact, bringing me to 97 countries confirmed on that band. I'm getting pretty close to being able to submit for the 5 Band DXCC award.

Posted via email from K2DBK's Ham Radio Blog

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Here's why you should use Logbook of The World

I've been a fan of Logbook of The World (LoTW) since it was announced by the ARRL, and have written about it in previous posts. I've gotten a lot of stations confirmed by the use of this electronic QSL method, but today was, I think, the first time that I've gotten a confirmation for an all-time new entity via LoTW prior to receiving a physical card. By way of explanation, for new entities, I always send out a card to the station that I worked. At this point that's a relatively rare occurrence, so I normally mail my QSL card to the other station pretty quickly. Under the best of circumstances, I'm thrilled to hear back from the other station in 2 or 3 weeks. It's not unusual to wait 3 months or even longer (sometimes a lot longer; I'm still getting cards back from stations that I contacted in 2000), but in this case, I got confirmation via LoTW today for a contact made just 3 days ago. In fact, the total elapsed time between me "sending" my QSL record to LoTW and the confirmation being made was a grand total of 36 hours. (This information is available within the system.) You can't beat that kind of turnaround time.

It's not that unusual to get a confirmation from a domestic US station within minutes of a contact (especially at the end of a contest, where many stations all upload their log information at once), but this is a confirmation of a contact that I made with a station located in the Solomon Islands. Wow.

And yes, I will send for a physical card for this contact as well, just because it's fun to have the cards.

Posted via email from k2dbk's posterous

Sunday, September 06, 2009

A Rosetta Stone

As I mentioned in my post earlier today, I'm using a new service that allows me to post to multiple locations at once. As I mentioned, I'm still "tuning" that service a bit, so some of you saw my post about ham radio who hadn't seen any of my previous posts.

For a while now, I've been posting to a blog about my ham radio activities. If you care to read it, it's located at In many of the posts, I'll either directly post an explanation about an unfamiliar term, or at least provide a link to a place where you can learn more information about that term. In the post earlier today which many of you saw via Facebook, I used a fair amount of jargon without explanation. So far I've gotten one "Huh??" (sorry Mona) and I suspect that there are a bunch of you who were thinking the same thing. In an attempt to provide at least a vague idea of what the heck I was talking about, I'd like to try to explain a few of the terms that I used.

DX - DX is ham radio shorthand for "distant station". In the context of the subject of my last post ("Finally, some new DX"), it means that I have made contact with a station relatively far away, and in this case, as the posting goes on to explain, I contacted a station in a new country.

Country isn't actually accurate. I participate in a program where you can earn awards for contacting stations in different locations. For the most part, a "location" is a country, but because of distance and other rules that I won't go into here, Alaska and Hawaii, although both states, count separately from the continental US. These locations are referred to as DXCC Entities, because DXCC is the name of the awards program. (If you're still interested, drop me a note and I can explain further.)

20m - That's short for 20 meters, which refers to the general radio frequency that I was using. It's a shorthand way to tell fellow hams where the contact was made. 20 meters is pretty much the same as saying 14 megahertz, and megahertz (abbreviated Mhz)is a term that you might be a little more familiar with. For instance, in the US, broadcast FM stations transmit between around 88 to 108 Mhz. (e.g., in the NY City area, a popular Classic Rock station is Q1043, which broadcasts on 104.3 Mhz.

CW - Most people know this as Morse Code. The abbreviation of CW stands for "Continuous Wave", which is a description of how morse code is actually transmitted most of the time on the radio.

Split up 2 - I'm going to gloss over this (because I'm trying not to write War and Peace - The Amateur Radio Years), but it has to do with where the operator running the remote station is listening for people calling him versus where he is transmitting.

K2DBK vs. K2DB - Ham radio operators (or hams) are licensed by their country governments. (In the US, the FCC issues licenses). By international convention, each station licensee receives a callsign, just like a commercial radio station. In the example above, the station known as Q1043 is actually licensed as WXRK, and if you listen, even though the DJs refer to the station as Q104 or Q1043, they will "ID" using the WXRK callsign periodically, as required by law. Callsigns for all types of radio stations (including amateur, or ham stations) are determined by international convention. Part of that convention says what a callsign can look like, including numbers, letters, and so on. Skimming over a lot of things, in the US, most callsigns start with W, N, K, or A, and there are rules that specify that there must be so many letters and where the number goes. (For any fellow hams reading this, yes, I am oversimplifying this.) My personal callsign is K2DBK. In this particular case, it's what's known as a vanity call (very much like a vanity license plate) with the "DBK" at the end being my initials. It turns out that K2DB is also a valid call, which is assigned to a nice guy named Paul.

599 - When two stations make a contact with each other, each station has to make sure that they have received the other station's callsign correctly, and generally there is an exchange of a report of signal strength. (How well can the other station hear me, and how well do I hear him.) 599 is a shorthand that basically says "I hear your loud and clear". As it turns out, quite often, a 599 report is sent even if you don't hear the other station that well, but it fills the requirement.

Solar Flux, A and K index and solar conditions - Solar Flux, A and K are numbers used by those interested in propagation. For long distance communications, we bounce our radio signals off the ionosphere. In very simple terms, the more sunspots there are, the easier it is to bounce our signals. You may have read that we are at a point of very low solar activity (virtually no sunspots), which makes communicating via radio over these long distances much more difficult. A simple way to understand this is to imagine someone holding a mirror 10 feet above you at night. If the mirror is dirty (bad solar conditions), a flashlight beam will bounce off of it, but not very well. On the other hand, if the mirror is nice and shiny, the beam will travel better.

So I hope this is helpful to some of you. If you're interested in more information, please don't hesitate to ask.

Posted via email from k2dbk's posterous

Finally, some new DX!

It's been quite a while since I've updated my blog, but I did have something worthwhile happen this afternoon, so I thought I'd do a quick post about it. (As an aside, I'm testing a service called "Posterous" which will auto-post this update to several places, including Facebook, my blog, and others. I'll tune the postings as I learn how this works, but you may see this post multiple times until then.)

Sharon and I were out doing a little shopping and running a few errands, then I came home and figured out how to fix the leaking toilet (the washer connecting the fill line seems to have dried out), then sat down at the radio to see what was on. It turns out that the conditions to the South Pacific in generally were pretty good, and I saw a spot for H44MY in the Solomon Islands on 20m CW.  I tuned there, and sure enough, I could hear them surprisingly well. They were working split up 2, so I figured I might as well give them a call, despite the relatively large pileup. After only about 5 minutes of trying, the operator returned my call (or part of it, he initially only came back with K2DB, and while Paul (K2DB) is a nice enough guy I wanted that contact!) so I resent my call a couple of times, he "rogered" and sent the call back along with the pro-forma 599 report, and we were done. My rather loud "Yahoo!" surprised Sharon who was sitting next to me, since to her, CW is just "beepy stuff".

In any case, this is yet another example of being able to work some surprisingly good DX even when the solar conditions are awful. (As I write this, there are no sunspots, the solar flux number is 69, which is pretty much where it's been for the last year or so, the A index is 4, and K is 0.) At the moment, there a lot of stations on from that general part of the world, operating in the All-Asia DX contest, so I'll see if I can get double-lucky and perhaps pick up another new one.

Posted via email from k2dbk's posterous

Friday, June 05, 2009

Addition to the the toolbox

About 18 months ago, I published a series of posts about Tools for Ham Radio. I haven’t really done any updates there since I published, so I’m going to try to occasionally write about either updates to the tools that I mentioned or new tools that I’ve found.

I’ll start off with K2DSL’s Maidenhead Grid Square Locator. This belongs in Part 4 of my series, The Internet Tool. What David has done is to create a simple web application that will take any one of several pieces of information such as an address, a callsign, or a 4 or 6 digit grid square and return a map showing that Maidenhead grid square.  This will primarily be of interest to operators working on 6m and higher, although there are some HF awards that require the grid square as well.

Here’s a little tip for you: Since the mapping functionality is powered by Google Maps, in the address field you can put in anything that Google Maps recognizes, such as landmarks, airports, or parks. For example, if you enter “High Point State Park” you’ll see where I’ll be operating with my club during the upcoming VHF QSO Party next weekend.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The actual post-Dayton writeups

I hope that some of you got a chuckle out of my last posting, "My First Annual Pre-Post Dayton writeup". I've personally gotten a kick out of re-reading it then reading the various real blog and forum postings. The one at entitled "Dayton 2009 Reflected" has an initial article and a bunch of follow-up comments. When I read some of them, I could have sworn they were lightly-edited versions of what I'd written. Take a look and tell me what you think.

Update (03 June): Steve, K9ZW, has done a whole series of posts about Dayton on his blog, "With Varying Frequency", which I recommend reading.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

My first annual pre-post-Dayton writeup

About a week from now, you'll be seeing all the Dayton Hamvention® post-event writeups. Due to work and life schedules, I've never had the opportunity to go there myself, but I've read the reports for each of the nine years that I've been a ham to see what I missed. With tongue firmly planted in cheek, I thought I'd get the jump on the writeups and do my own post-event posting before the event even started.

The trip out to Dayton was uneventful/unbelievably exciting as usual. We headed out early so that we we could visit the Air Force Museum, and on the way we passed a giant antenna farm. We got to the hotel and went to our usual restaurant, where we ran into a bunch of other hams.

The next day, we started walking the flea market. We couldn't believe how crowded/empty it was compared to previous years! Of course, it rained continuously/intermittently all afternoon. It was amazing to see the number of out-of-shape hams driving around in carts while eating bags of pork rinds. Using the outdoor "facilities" was an experience that I wouldn't wish on the worst lid.

We headed into the Hara Arena, which was as run-down as ever. We all agreed that they should just tear down the place and move the Hamvention® somewhere else, though of course after hours of arguments nobody could figure out exactly where that might be.
Using the indoor "facilities" was an experience that I wouldn't wish on the worst lid.

The vendor exhibits inside the arena were really crowded/empty compared to last year, and a bunch of major vendors {didn't bother to even show up/surprised everyone with the new goodies on display}. We were disappointed that our favorite manufacturer wasn't willing to sell us their brand-new state-of-the-art rig for 90% off list price. We'll never deal with them again!

We ran into a bunch of DXing/contesting buddies and wound up heading out to dinner with them. After that, we went back to the hotel and visited a few of the suites, where we ran into more DXing/contesting buddies. We ate too much pizza, drank too much beer then headed back to the room.

The next morning, we headed back to the flea market where it rained some more and was really hot/cold. We saw a bunch of guys dressed oddly, and were annoyed at the non-ham stuff that was being sold, although we did pick up some nice potholders. We also saw a bunch of vehicles with enough antennas to make NASA jealous.

We attended a bunch of seminars which were all great, except the rooms were always too small and we had to stand next to a bunch of people who smelled bad. We attended the big dinner and it was great seeing all the famous hams in attendance.

The next day, we made one more pass through the flea market where it was still raining. We picked up 1000' of some kind of feedline really cheap, but wished we'd had one of those electric carts because we had to walk 2 miles, uphill, back to the car.

The trip back home took much longer than expected due to the horrible traffic. If only there was some form of communications that we could have used to communicate with all the other hams on the road!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Things sure have been quiet lately

I decided to take a look at my log to see what might be of interest since my last update. Unfortunately, the answer has been “not much”. Unfortunately, I was never able to make a contact with VK9GMW from Mellish Reef, which was disappointing. I heard them a few times and tried to make contact, but just wasn’t able to do it. I did manage to work TI7KK who were operating from Islas Murcielago, the relatively rare IOTA NA-191. Thanks as always to Larry, N4VA, for letting me know that this was a rare one.

I did work a couple of new entities on 160m, KG4CN at Guantanamo Bay, and C6DX in the Bahamas. I don’t work a lot on 160m mainly because although my antenna will work (sort of) on that band, it doesn’t work very well. Those two entities bring my grand total to 10 entities worked on 160m. I don’t think I’ll be getting single-band DXCC anytime soon there.

I did notice one rather amusing thing while looking at my log: I worked 4L4WW in the country of Georgia, and the next contact I had was N4PN, in the state of Georgia.

One final thing is that I’ve started to participate in the “Ham Banner Exchange” that Fred, WB4AEJ has started. If you’re reading this on my blog website (as opposed to getting it via email or RSS feed), you’ll see a banner at the top of the page for another ham website. Fred has set this up for free as a way to encourage people to find other ham-related websites that might be of interest. The way this works is that you agree to display the different banners on your website, and in return, your banners are displayed on other websites. Again, it’s all free and I’ve already noticed an increase in web traffic to my sites. For more information, check out the FAQs  and if you’re interested, you can sign up at the Ham Banner Exchange login page.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Saturday Surprise

I got a nice surprise this afternoon while tuning around the bands. There are a couple of contests going on, but nothing I was participating in, and the only interesting DX that I was looking for was VK9GWM, the guys out on the rather rare Mellish Reef for a DXpedition. I hadn’t heard them today and was just starting to think that they’d might be showing up on 30m or 40m at around 2100Z or so. Meanwhile, I saw a spot for Chris, TL0A in the Central African Republic.  Although I have worked many of the countries on the African continent, that’s one of the few that I haven’t worked, so I tuned to the 17m frequency from the spot but heard nothing. I left the radio on that frequency while I was doing some other work in my shack/office. A few minutes later, someone spotted that TL0A had moved to 20m on 14.200Mhz. I tuned there quickly, hoping to beat the crowds, and I got there just in time to hear a French-accented voice says “…210”. I didn’t know if he was working split (listening on 14210) or moving there, so I did what I always recommend: I listened.

It turned out that Chris had move to 14.210 and was working simplex there. I heard him complete a contact, and I called, but he pulled out another station. Still, nobody had spotted that he’d moved there, so I thought I still might have a chance to work him before the pileups began. He finished a brief contact, and I called him again. This time, he heard me and I was able to have a brief chat with him. Within a couple of minutes, he’d changed to working split and started getting spotted on the cluster. Listening to the pileups that followed, it was obvious that if I hadn’t gotten to him before he was spotted on his new frequency, there is no way that I would have made the contact.

The lesson here is that you have to be persistant and you have to listen.

On a totally unrelated note, thanks to Scot, KA3DRR for assigning me shackadelic number 007 … and he didn’t even know that I’m a James Bond fan!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Catching up, take 3

I seem to have falling into one of those “I really should post something soon … maybe tomorrow” ruts again, and as a result, have gotten a bit behind. I haven’t been on the radio all that much, but I did do a few things of note.

Last weekend was the Virginia QSO party. The band conditions weren’t very good, but I did manage to make 162 contacts in 68 different counties or Independent Cities (something that i think is unique to Virginia) for a total claimed score of 15,232 points. Not my best effort (I had 195 contacts last year), but I think that I did pretty well considering the time spent and considering the band conditions. I had a lot of fun during the last hour or so of the contest because I was able to hold onto a pretty clear “run” frequency on 75 meters and worked about 25 or 30 station over about 40 minutes. I’ve discussed this before, but by way of explanation, in most contests, you either “search & pounce”  (S&P) or “run”. Most stations spend their time doing S&P because there are usually far more stations in a contest than there are available frequencies. When you’re running a relatively low-powered station it’s easier just to tune up  and down the bands and contact the stations that are “running”. Running means that you stay on a single frequency and work the S&P folks as they come to you. In most cases, it’s best to be running, since if you’ve got a clear frequency and a decent signal, you can just sit there and work station after station pretty much as fast as you can make the contacts. When you S&P, you often have to wait for other stations (who are trying to contact a “run” station), and it’s usually a lot slower. Getting a decent run frequency can be pretty difficult, and I think I just got lucky. I can say that it’s way more fun to run than to S&P.

The only other interesting thing was that I managed to work the Lord Howe Island Dxpedition (VK9LA) on Sunday afternoon. Lord Howe Island is fairly rare, and is a new DXCC entity for me, so I was very pleased to work them. I’ve tried a couple of mornings at around 8AM local time (1200Z)  to work them on 30m, but wasn’t having much luck. I was home Sunday afternoon doing some paperwork (tax time!) and intermittently looking at the cluster spots to see if VK9LA was showing up. At around 2000Z, I started to hear them on 20m, and based on information from the spots on the cluster plus propagation predictions from W6ELProp it looked like the path to the VK9LA guys was long path. Long path means that the signals are taking the path that’s 180 degrees opposite the shortest path around the globe to a station. Short path to LHI is about 9450 miles (15200km), and long path is 15,400 miles (24800km). It’s likely that I’ve worked stations long-path in that part of the world before, but I certainly haven’t done so recently with the band conditions so terrible. I tried to work them for a while, but just wasn’t having any success, so I took a break for a short while (jumped on the exercise bike) and came back to the radio a bit before 2100Z and after about 15 minutes I managed to work them.

Friday, March 13, 2009


I discovered something today about International Reply Coupons, or IRCs that has an interesting tie-in with one of the big news stories of the day. First, some background about what an IRC is, and why they are of interest to hams.

Although electronic systems such as the ARRL’s Logbook of The World and provide a computerized way for hams to confirm contacts with each other (a contact is known as a QSO, a confirmation of that contact is a QSL), many of us still enjoy receiving a physical memento of the contact in the form of a QSL Card. Most hams have their own QSL card, which can vary from a “stock” card with the only customization being the unique callsign assigned to that ham all the way to multi-part tri-fold full-color cards. Often hams will use different QSL cards when operating from different locations, which I do when I operate from various places other than my home location. When requesting a QSL card from someone, it’s considered courteous to supply return postage, particularly if the station contacted is particularly rare or is likely to have to send out a lot of QSL cards for any reason. (There are plenty of exceptions to this, and while personally I appreciate it when someone includes return postage when requesting a card from me, I don’t usually don’t care that much if they don’t since I don’t send out that many cards that it’s a problem.)

If you’re sending a card to someone in the same country (in my case, in the US), the return postage is usually in the form of a Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope (or SASE). It gets more difficult when crossing country borders. A US stamp simply isn’t valid on an envelope coming back to me from any other country, so the options are to buy foreign stamps or to include some way for the other station to purchase the stamps in their country. I’m not going to go into all the pros and cons of the various methods (I’ll save that for another time), but it turns out that the International Postal Union (IPU) recognized this as as problem a very long time ago.

The issue originally came up unrelated to ham radio, where businesses wanted to be able to get a mail reply from someone in a foreign country. What they came up with is something called an International Reply Coupon (IRC). An IRC can be purchased from a post office in a country that’s a member of the IPU (which is most countries) for some set price, which varies by country. It can be exchanged in any other country for postage sufficient to send a letter via airmail. The price of IRCs varies from country to country, and the costs are also relative to world currency values. In some countries, it’s fairly inexpensive to purchase an IRC, while in others, it’s quite expensive. The cost for an IRC also doesn’t necessarily match the price of an airmail stamp in the country. For example, at the present time, the cost to buy an IRC from the US Postal Service is $2.10, but an airmail stamp is currently $0.94, so there’s quite a premium.

It turns out that it’s perfectly legal to purchase an IRC in a country where they are relatively cheap and to turn them in for stamps in a country where the value of the airmail postage is more than what was paid for the IRC in the first place. This is known as arbitrage and is commonly done in financial circles (though usually not specifically with IRCs). However, many hams simply use the IRCs they receive as their own form of currency, passing along a received IRC to someone else with the idea that they really just want to get that QSL card and aren’t trying to make money.

But there was someone who decided that this would be a fine way to make money quite a long time ago, and that’s where the tie-in to the news of the day begins. The person in question was Charles Ponzi, for whom the infamous Ponzi scheme was named. The articles that I’ve linked to here have a comprehensive explanation of what he did, but in a nutshell, Ponzi started off by buying relatively inexpensive IRCs in Italy and turning them in for stamps in the US, making a very significant profit. This was all legal, until he decided that he could make far more money by simply getting investors to give him cash to (in theory) buy more IRCs which would produce huge profits for the investors after the IRCs were sold. The problem is that Ponzi never actually bought or sold the IRCs, and managed to convince his investors to leave their profits with him. He told them they were making lots of money, while in reality the only one who really made money (aside from a few of his very early investors; read the articles to understand why) was Ponzi himself.

This brings us to a courtroom in New York City on the 12th of March, 2009, where Bernard Madoff pled guilty to running what will almost certainly turn out to be one of the biggest Ponzi schemes of all time, costing investors at least $50 billion.

And that’s how we get a rather convoluted link between one of the biggest swindlers of all time and ham radio.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Back to DX

It’s been a few weeks since my last update, and in the interim, I’ve moved my radio focus back from earning the Triple Play Award to working DX. As most DXers know by now, a Dxpedition to the very rare Desecheo Island was on the air for around two weeks as K5D, and I was fortunate enough to make quite a number of contacts.  The contacts (all showing up in their online QSL log) were:

























My first contact with them was on 40m phone barely 12 hours after the operation started. While I’d expected to make a few contacts at some point towards the end of the operation, I hadn’t expected to make contact so soon. But, as a number of my friends told me, even with the huge global pileups Desecheo, which is just a few miles from Puerto Rico, is a “chip shot” from my home. That did turn out to be the case. My goal was to make at least one contact on each of the three modes, and to work them on at least once on each band where I could hear them.

I tried to be a good “ham radio citizen”, so while I did work pretty hard to get each of the modes, and to make a single contact on each band, I did hold off a bit on the bands where I’d already made a contact (to work them on a new mode) until later during the dxpedition when the pileups had died down considerably. I hope that by doing this I allowed others to make perhaps the only contact they had. That being said, when the station isn’t busy, I’ll certainly try to work them. I did wind up with one duplicate contact (75m phone) since when trying to make my contact a couple of guys decided to have a rag-chew essentially right on top of the K5D station and I wasn’t sure that K5D had correctly logged my call. I tried again a few minutes later and that contact was definitely OK, and it turned out that both contacts showed up in the K5D online log.

I am very pleased to have made a 160m (or “Top Band”) contact with them. I don’t have a real antenna for 160m, and although my G5RV does load with the tuner, it neither transmits nor receives very well. However, my persistence paid off, and after five or six nights, trying for an hour or so each night (perhaps even longer than that), just a day or so before they ceased operations, the 160m was very quiet and I did manage to make a contact with them.

On a final note, I did receive my Triple Play Award certificate this week:


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Triple Play Award #152!

I did it! I made and confirmed all 150 needed contacts for the ARRL's Triple Play Award! I applied for the award yesterday morning and got confirmation via the Logbook of the World system last night that I'd received the 152nd Triple Play Award. (The awards are serialized, so it's pretty nice to have such a low number.) They've published the list of awards handed out in numerical order on the awards page, and it's really fun to watch folks who you've been contacting start to show up on the list.

Like contesting, this is a cooperative effort. No matter how good you are, no matter how big your station is, no matter where you're located, you can't make contacts on your own. Sure, there are things like the K3UK LoTW Sked Room (click on LoTW in the menu) and the "hangout" frequencies (3.618Mhz at night, around 14.290Mhz +/- during the day) that are great tools to get folks together, but without the people helping each other, the award would be impossible to achieve. Also, as I previously mentioned, the bands might not be quite as bad as some say they are. All of these contacts were made using 100watts to a G5RV antenna at about 35 feet (10.5m).

Below is the list of the folks with whom I made the officially credited contacts, but this list doesn't tell the whole story: There are others who tried to make a contact with me but were unable to do so (despite valiant efforts), and others who made contacts with me who don't show up here because someone else confirmed the contact first. I am equally grateful to all of them, and I am also proud to know that I've helped some of them (as well as others) on their way to the award.

New HampshireK1DGK1DGK1RO
North CarolinaW4KAZN4HNK4FX
Rhode IslandK3IUN1HRAKI1G
South CarolinaN3ZLK4JPGK4RW
South DakotaKD0SKE0WMK7RE
West VirginiaAJ1MAJ1MW8AKS

Monday, February 02, 2009

More about the Triple Play Award

I'm not quite sure how many contacts I had toward the Triple Play Award that I discussed last week, but I've made some nice progress since then. In fact, as I write this late Sunday night (or rather, early Monday morning), according to the Awards page within Logbook of the World, I need only a handful of contacts to complete the award. The "slots" left are:
  • CW: Hawaii, Kansas, Louisiana, South Dakota
  • Phone: Idaho, Kansas, Utah, Wyoming
  • Digital: Hawaii, Utah
Actually, by morning, I hope to have South Dakota confirmed on CW; I've uploaded my logs to LoTW and am waiting for them to process. In any case, I'm under a dozen left, and I'm very pleased with my progress.

Although I mentioned it last week, what's really struck me is how incredibly helpful and friendly everyone has been. People will gladly move to another band or mode when asked if you need a contact, and it's certainly contagious. I don't think I've heard anyone yet say that they wouldn't accomodate a fellow award-seeker with the possible exception of asking them to wait a few minutes while another contact is completed.

What I think is really special is that many of the folks who've already received their awards (you can see the current list on the ARRL's Awards page) still hang around to "give out" their state to others. Some have even posted information about their TPA efforts on their web site, like this one from Tom, N9DD which has pictures of the some of the folks that he's met along the way, including yours truly.

The award has served as a focal point for a informal community of hams, and I find that very gratifying. As I've mentioned in the past, I see ham radio as a way to relax and have fun, and it's really great having a new bunch of friends to "hang out" with.

So, as I mentioned last time, why not drop by 3.618 LSB most evenings and say hello (and it's looking like 14.290 or 14.292 USB is becoming the daytime "hangout"). You might just be that #150 that someone needs.

Oh yeah ... if you happen to be located in any of the states that I've mentioned, please drop me a line or leave a comment ... I'd really like to work you so that I can finish up my award!

Update: The South Dakota confirmation did come through, so I now have 9 left to go.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The ARRL Triple Play Award

Not long ago, the ARRL announced new award called the "Triple Play Award". The info at the link gives all the details, but the concept is simple: Work all 50 US states on CW, Phone, and Digital (RTTY, PSK, etc.) starting on January 1. All contacts must be confirmed via the ARRL Logbook of The World. To be honest, when I first heard this, my reaction was "well, that's nice, but I'm not that interested in working non-DX stations, and it'll take me forever to work that many stations on all those modes".

But that was before I wound up with over 400 contacts during the ARRL RTTY Roundup and more than 250 contacts in the CW North American QSO Party (NAQP) . I realized at that point that I'd had about 45 or so states confirmed on RTTY, and close to that many confirmed on CW. I picked up a few states on sideband during the SSB version of the NAQP, and realized that I actually had a pretty good number of the 150 required contacts already confirmed.

Andy, K3UK, set up a "sked" (schedule) page on his website (click "LoTW" at the top of the page) where hams trying to find different states could meet to arrange contacts easily, and there has been a decent group of folks there each day for the last couple of weeks. During the evening hours, 3.618Mhz (LSB) has been a kind of on-air meeting place. I started out by "lurking"; just reading the messages posted or listening to the chatter on-air and occasionally making a contact. The real fun started when, after I'd work some station that I needed I'd have another station call because they actually need a contact from New Jersey!

Ok, in case it's not obvious, New Jersey isn't exactly considered even remotely rare, or usually even very interesting, for the purposes of most ham radio awards. However, because the Triple Play Award (or TPA, as the guys on the sked page have been calling it) is so new, lots of folks still need a contact with New Jersey. While I haven't exactly been trying to work giant pileups, I have been "giving out" New Jersey to more and more folks. It's just plain fun to be able to help someone else earn their awards, and, while "hanging out", I've managed to pick up a few of the tougher states myself.

As I was writing this entry, I managed to work WY7FD on both RTTY and CW modes on 80m. As of now, that means that the only states with which I haven't made any contacts for TPA are Hawaii and Utah. I've worked both of those states in the past, so the trick now is to find a time and place to work a station who'll be uploading his log to Logbook of the World.

Speaking of Logbook of the World, because all contacts for this award have to be confirmed through LoTW, you get nearly instant (in relative terms) gratification when you work someone. Most of the folks trying to get the award upload their logs at least once per day (and some appear to do it even more often), so you usually know for certain that you're "in the log" very quickly. Don't get me wrong: I still like getting paper QSL cards, but for an award like this it's really fun just seeing how fast the contacts are confirmed.

One more quick thing: I have to say that it's been wonderful how friendly and accomodating folks have been in helping each other make contacts. Most folks will gladly change modes or bands to help out someone looking for a particular state. It's not that hams aren't friendly in general, but it just seems like my fellow TPA award seekers are really going out of their way to help out.

If you haven't done so yet, why not stop by the K3UK chat room and join a bunch of us on 3.618 each evening?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The bands are better than you think

Ok, we all know that the bands have been in pretty poor shape for the last few years. Everyone is complaining about how there's nothing to work. At least some people who wanted to get into the hobby, or back into it, aren't bothering, as shown by this quote from the forum 

Two of my neighbors had talked of getting back in to Ham radio as they had done as kids, but their wives made them check out conditions first before they buy...and it looks like they are looking for a new hobby.

But are things really that bad? They are certainly worse than they were at the peak of the solar cycle, but I submit that there is still a lot to do on the radio. Better than just using my gut feeling, I took a look at my log starting about 18 months ago, in July 2007. I wanted to pick a starting point that was clearly close to the bottom of the the trough of Solar Cycle 23.

What I did was to configure my log as if I'd just gotten on the radio on the first of July, 2007, and pulled some reports for things like DXCC, WAZ, and WAS to see what I'd have if I'd only had these last 18 months on the air. I think that what I found may surprise you.

First, keep in mind that all my contacts have been made from my home station: An Icom 756 Pro II running 100 watts into a G5RV antenna up at about 35 feet (10.7 meters). No amps, no beams. Most of my operating is casually "chasing DX" or operating contests for fun. Because when I was working these stations, I wasn't explicitly trying to earn an award only from that point forward, so there are probably some "easy" countries that I haven't bothered to work during that period, since I'd already worked them prior to that time. Given all that, let's see what I've got.

First, we'll look at DXCC: Over the last 18 months, I've worked 168 DXCC entities as "mixed" (combined phone, CW, and digital), with 118 on phone, 131 CW, and 83 on digital (primarily RTTY, with a little PSK thrown in there and there.) Although the numbers on the higher bands (10m through 17m) aren't great, I worked 134 on 20m, 122 on 40m, and 59 on 75/80m. Here's something to think about: At this point in the solar cycle, working the lower bands, like 80m (and even 160m, though I don't work 160m much myself) is better than when the solar activity is better. Overall, I worked close to 500 "band/countries". (Each time you work a county on a different band, it counts as a "band/country", so, for instance, I've worked Laos on 3 different bands during this period, so that counts as 3 band/countries).

Perhaps what's even more interesting than just working the 168 entities is that there's a good number of what could be considered rare or semi-rare entities in there. I went through the list and wanted to mention some that I thought were interesting from my location on the east coast of the US.
1A0  Sov. Military Order of Malta
3B7  Agalega & St. Brandon
3V  Tunisia
3X  Guinea
5H  Tanzinia
5N  Nigeria
5T  Mauritania
6W  Senegal
7Q  Malawi
7X  Algeria
9L  Sierra Leone
9Q  Dem. Rep. of the Congo
9X  Rwanda
C3  Andorra
C5  Gambia
CE0Y  Easter Island
CY0  Sable Island
D2  Angola
E4  Palestine
EL  Liberia
FO/M  Marquesas Islands
FO0  Clipperton Island
FR  Reunion
FW  Wallis & Futuna Island
HK0  San Andres & Providencia
JX  Jan Mayen
OY  Faroe Islands
S7  Seychelles
TI9  Cocos Island
VK9W  Willis Island
VP6  Pitcairn Island
VP6/D  Ducie Island
XF4  Revilla Gigedo
XW  Laos
ZC4  UK Sovereign Bases on Cyrprus

The point here is that there has been plenty of not-just-routine DX to work over the last 18 months, despite the conditions.

Let's look at another award, the Worked All Zone (WAZ) award that depends on good conditions for DX. Over the same period of time, I worked 35 out of the available 40 zones, which are located all over the world.

Closer to home, over that same 18 month period, I worked all 50 US states, with 50 on phone, 49 on CW, and 50 on digital (again, mostly RTTY). Again, the lower bands have been best, with 42 states on 20m, 48 on 40m, and 43 on 75/80m. (I even worked 11 states on 160m!)  Again, the point is that there is plenty plenty to do.

My conclusion is that those two guys who didn't think that it was worth getting back into radio were wrong. There are still plenty of stations to work, and plenty to do on the radio. I've only touched the tip of the iceberg here. There are folks who try to work US counties, Islands, Lighthouses, museum ships, and much more. They are all on the air, making contacts every day. There's plenty to do on the air, but it does require that you turn on the radio. Stop complaining on the Internet. Use your radio. Trust me, you'll be a lot happier.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Antenna Modeling

Terry, WX7S, is posting a series of article on his blog about antenna modeling. There are already numerous resources that cover this topic, but I like Terry's approach of breaking things down into pretty short topics. The information is great, but there isn't so much of it all at once that your eyes glaze over. The series is available on his blog, here's a link to the first post. You can find the entire series (and more) by clicking on the Antenna Modeling Category heading on his blog.