Sunday, December 30, 2007

QSLing (or The job isn't done until the paperwork is finished, Part II)

Back in August, I wrote an entry that talked a bit about my "routine" QSLing (mostly answering incoming requests) but focused more on getting a card ready for my then-recent ZF2DK operation. I've spent a bunch of time over the last week catching up on the QSLing that I should have been doing all along, and I thought I'd write a little bit about that as well.

As I mentioned previously, I try to be really good about responding to cards that I receive sent
directly to me (as opposed to via the ARRL Bureau). Most of the direct cards that I get tend to be from US stations that I've worked in a contest, though I think the majority wind up being for contacts on 6 meters, where my grid square might actually be of interest to someone. (Unfortunately, for the most part, a station located in New Jersey isn't exactly considered "rare" to anyone, although I have worked a few DX stations in the past that did need NJ for the WAS award or possibly Bergen County for a County Hunter award.) As a result, most of the DX cards I get come in through the W2 bureau. There are some DX stations that QSL every contact (which seems a bit excessive; I don't need confirmation from any given station more than once for any band/mode combination), but using the ARRL Outbound Bureau is a very cost-effective (though relatively slow) way to get cards back for those "band/mode fills". (My preference, of course, is to use the Logbook of the World service, but not every station uses that.) The one exception to my "respond the same day" to an incoming card is that when I receive a card via the bureau, I mark it for QSLing via the bureau instead of actually responding instantly. The way the bureau works is that you take advantage of sending out cards in bulk. You can send a small number, but it's not as cost-effective.

It seems that I'd been marking outbound "response" cards for quite some time, at least a year. Maybe more. What I'm supposed to do is to print out the card labels and send a batch of cards out to Newington (ARRL HQ, where the actual outbound bureau is located) every few months so that things don't pile up too much. That's what I was supposed to do. Unfortunately, with everything else going on, I'd gotten behind on answering those cards, along with sending for cards that I needed to get (but not urgently; a typical response time for a card sent via the bureau system is 1 to 2 years,
and much longer isn't unusual). Since I had some time off from work over the past week, I figured that this would be a good time to get caught up on my QSLing.

It turned out to be a lot bigger job than I'd expected. I figured that I'd probably have a couple of
dozen cards to go out via the bureau, and maybe a dozen or two cards to go out directly. (More abou those later). It turns out that I had 268 cards to send out, which, oddly enough, happened to be split exactly (134 each) between the bureau and cards that needed to be sent out directly. When I realized how big project was, I figured that I'd get the direct cards out first, then tackle the bureau cards. (What's another few days when you're talking about a year or two for a response?)

What I discovered about the direct cards was that there was a mix of a relatively small number of cards to go to stations located overseas (DX stations), but a lot more that went either to QSL
Managers located in the US or to stations located in the US. (A QSL manager is a person who handles the QSL duties for another station.) What I'd forgotten about was that a year (or two? or more?) ago, I marked a lot of my 6m contacts for QSLing to confirm their grid square, needed for the VUCC award. In fact, I marked about 65 of them. Because the ARRL bureau system only allows cards to be sent to stations located outside the continental 48 states (with some exceptions), those cards all had to go direct. So first, I spent quite a few hours (mostly very late at night; one of the advantages of not having to go to work the next day) researching to make sure that I had the correct addresses. After that was all set, I printed out labels for the cards (with the QSO information to go onto my QSL cards) and address labels. It's then a fairly mechanical process of affixing the label to the QSL card, usually writing a short note on the card (which often winds up being just "73, David" when I'm doing this many), putting the card, along with either an SASE (for domestic cards) or a SAE plus some means to supply return postage (typically either "Green Stamps" or an IRC) into an outer envelope, putting on postage, the address label, and a return address label (making sure it says "USA" if it's going overseas, sealing the envelope and repeating. And repeating. etc. The result is what you see in the picture, although I took that after I'd already mailed about 15 other airmail letters.

Of course, then we have the bureau cards. The good news is that there are no envelopes or addresses to worry about, though I did my research there too. Some stations do not accept cards via their bureau, but what's nice is that some stations will now sent you a return card via the bureau via either an email request (such as DL5AXX) or via a web form (such as DJ2MX). I assume that those stations just don't need my card, which and are happy to help you out. That's a
nice "spirit of ham radio" thing, and personally, I'd be happy to do that as well (if someone ever really needed my card.) I recommend doing the research to find out if a station will respond this way, as it can save you a considerable amount of money (versus a direct QSL; It's now USD$3 to get a card returned from Germany, that doesn't count the postage to send it there). The someone tricky part about using the ARRL outbound bureau is that you do need to send the card to the correct manager and the cards need to be sorted in country-prefix order. Fortunately, my logging program prints the labels out in the correct order, but you still need to affix the labels, then, as per the ARRL's instructions, you need to write the QSL manager's call on the upper-left corner of the back of the card, and put any cards going to manager into the pile with that side up. Whew. Ok, it's not the hardest thing in the world to do, and if I'd just managed to keep up with this, it wouldn't be nearly as big a task.

So the good news is that hopefully over the next few months (or years, for the bureau cards) I'll get some responses back from all of this work. While I strongly believe in electronic QSLing through the Logbook of The World, I do like coming home to find a new card or two in the mail.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

It pays to listen

This was a pretty good week or so for me, in terms of DX. On the 18th, I worked E4/OM2DX, the DXCC Entity of Palestine as an "all-time new one", entity # 284 worked for me. The next day, the ARRL DXCC desk announced that the island of St. Barthelemy (better known as St. Barts) qualified as a new DXCC entity due to some administrative changes. The actual reasons why it became a new "counter" are explained in the ARRL DXCC Desk link above, as well as one of the postings on the Daily DX's St. Barts page.

So what does this mean? Well, for a lot of folks, they want to contact the new entitity as soon as possible, for all kinds of reasons. In some cases, when a "new one" comes on the air for the first time, it may only be on the air for a short time, because it's a remote, uninhabited area (or at least uninhabited by hams), as was the case with Ducie Island or Swains Island. That certainly wasn't going to be the case with St. Barts, which is a well-developed, modern tourist destination in the Caribbean near St. Martin (from which it was recently administratively separated). St. Barts has it's own resident ham population, and it's certain to be on the air frequently. In any case folks were very anxious to work this new entity, and two very well-known DXers, Martti, OH2BH and Olli, OH0XX headed down there to provide contacts for "the deserving".

The timing for all of this worked out quite well for me, since I'm taking about 10 days off from work between using up some leftover vacation days and the holidays. While I didn't work them on the very first day of their operation, I did get them (operating as FJ/OH2AM) fairly soon after that, providing me with my DXCC Entity #285 in the log. Unlike some of the huge DXpeditions that are on the air on many bands and modes simultaneously, even the near-superhuman abilities of Martti and Olli have their limits, so they'd typically operate on one band using CW and a different band using phone at a time, changing bands as night falls on St. Barts to take advantage of the lower bands that become available later in the (local) evening. They set up antennas for just a couple of nights on 80m, and especially since I was off from work, I stayed up very late and managed to work them on 80m after trying for around 1/2 hour at 2AM local time.

According to published information, Olli left for home today (the 25th), with Martti scheduled to leave tomorrow. I was sitting at the computer listening to Martti working stations on 20m until the propagation completely vanished. After a brief break, he moved to 40m to work stations on phone. (Single Sideband). I don't think that they'd worked any station on phone on 40m since their arrival, so predictably the pileups were pretty significant, to put it mildly. However, having nothing better to do (and deciding that sitting in one place and not moving, having come home absolutely stuffed to the gills from our friends Chuck & Lorraine's annual Christmas feast was a good thing), I figured I'd try to work them.

Martti is such a master at working a pileup that sometimes I'll just listen to him working stations just because he's so darn good at it. What's nice about him is that he keeps the pileups under control, and even little-pistol stations like me figure that we've got at least a fighting chance to work him. But today, I heard him doing something that I'd read about, but have only heard maybe once or twice very briefly.

By way of explanation, when operating on 40m phone, it is common for stations outside of the United States to transmit in the portion of the band that is designated as CW only for the US (usually between around 7050kHz and 7100kHz) but listen for stations calling in the US phone portion (above 7125kHz). It's the same as a conventional split operation, just that the split is much larger. But here's where things get tricky: At the present time, shortwave broadcasters outside of the US share the allocation between 7100 and 7350 kHz with amateur radio. They don't use all of the spectrum, but it can be tricky, especially for a station in the Caribbean, to find a clear frequency to listen.

What happened today was that Martti had to find a "window" (range of frequencies) to operate in and those of us calling would try to figure out where he was listening and call there (or just above or below), in the hopes of being here. Because of broadcast interference, Martti had to keep moving the window around, meaning that if you didn't listen, you'd have no chance of making a contact. But here's where it got really interesting: Every now and then, after a contact, he'd say something like "now listening on 205" or "215 is clear". If you weren't really listening, and just yelling, you'd probably miss what he said. Of course, eventually the pileup would figure out that he was listening to just a single frequency and move on, but only the "listeners" were the first there.

So that's where I got my break: He was using a window of 7195 to 7210, and just moving around without much of a pattern that I could hear, and after one call, I heard him say "208 is clear". I tuned to 7208, made one call there, and Martti responded.

After I made that contact, I realized that it had reinforced something that I've always told new hams (and not-so-new hams): The most important thing you can do with ham radio is to listen, listen, listen. If I hadn't been listening, I'm sure I'd still be calling.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Tools for Ham Radio - Part 4

This is the fourth (and final, for now) part of a series that I'm doing on software tools for ham radio. I've written some background in part 1, and you can find parts 2 and 3 in my blog as well.

The Internet Tool

Some people think that calling the Internet a tool isn't quite fair. I disagree, and view it as a source for other tools; a meta-tool if you will. Using the Internet, you can find almost anything that you'll need, including all the of the tools that I've mentioned previously.

I'm going to focus, briefly, on a few sites that I use regularly. Again, as with the other tools, these are sites that I happen to use fairly often and like. There are others that provide similar information, and there are thousands of others that I have yet to find.

So, in no particular order, here we go:
  • The mother of all callsign lookup sites. Aside from having all US callsigns automatically populated and updated, many (most?) DXers and contesters have their callsigns, mailing addresses, and email addresses listed here. If for some reason you haven't heard of this site, you probably don't have an Internet connection (and haven't been on the air much, since a lot of stations will now say "QSL via".)
  • Propagation info at Although there are other sites that go into more detail about a specific aspect of propagation, this site provides an excellent overview on general propagation conditions.
  • DX Summit: DX spots from packet clusters all over the world are consolidated here. While you can view things essentially in real-time (as you can on many other sites), one feature that I find particularly useful is the ability to pull down historical spots. For instance, as I write this, FJ/OH2AM is on the air from the new DXCC entity of St. Barthelemy (FJ). Earlier, I wanted to listen for them when they came up on 40m CW, so by searching the spots I was able to find out approximate time and frequency to look for them.
  • ARRL Home Page: There is just so much good info on the ARRL home page that I don't know where to begin. If you're a member, there's even more good info on their members-only pages. From information about contests to awards, to general news, it's all there. As a plus, they have an RSS feed available if you don't want to have to go visit the site.
  • There are two sites that I use when I'm trying to figure out how much return postage to include when sending out a QSL card: and I tend to check between them because occasionally one's been updated more recently than the other.
  • There's a lot of good stuff here, but in particular I like their user-generated product reviews section.
  • The NG3K Amateur Radio Contest/DX Page has a tremendous amount of information about past, current, and future DX operations. Probably my favorite part of this site is the Announced DX Operations page, which includes information about dates of operation, the QSL manager, and the web site for the operation.
  • AC6V's Amateur Radio and DX Reference Guide website was one of the first ham-oriented sites that I found when I got into ham radio, and it's still one that I use frequently. If there is something related to ham radio that can't be found on this site, it probably doesn't exist. Although there is quite a bit of "local" content, this site is particularly good for finding more detailed sites about a particular topic.
  • K2DSL’s Maidenhead Grid Square Locator is a 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. (Added 05 June 2009)
  • And finally, there's K2DBK's Ham Radio Website. Ok, I had to give a plug for my site. To be honest, I update this blog far more often than I update my site, but I do use it for things like my ZF2DK trip, etc.
I realize, of course, that I've barely scratched the surface of what's available on the Internet, but as with the other tools, I thought it might be useful to share those things that I personally find useful in the hopes that it might help you to find something that you didn't know about. I'd be curious to hear from anyone who discovered something new by virtue of it being mentioned here, and I'd also like to hear about different tools that you find useful.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Tools for Ham Radio - Part 3

This is the third part of a series on Ham Radio Tools that I'm doing. The first two parts can be found here and here.

The Digital Mode Tools

One of the really nice things about having a computer in the shack is that many of the digital modes that used to require dedicated hardware (like RTTY) can now be easily done with just a
sound card and a simple interface. This makes it really easy to try out new modes without spending a fortune on dedicated hardware. It also makes it possible for programmers to create and modify new modes quickly and easily without worrying about obsoleting the old hardware.

The two digital modes that I use most often are PSK31 and RTTY. I don't do all that much of either, but now and then I'll get my feet wet by playing in a RTTY contest or
working someone on PSK maybe as a new country or mode or band. There are really just a couple of programs that I use for these digital outings. Most of the time, if I'm working PSK, I simply use the built-in PSK window in DX4WIN. It doesn't have as many features as some of the more advanced stand-alone PSK programs (check out the PSK31 link above for some of the programs available as well as the list at AC6Vs web pages) and it doesn't yet support the newer PSK63 mode. (Although in doing a little research for this posting, the PSK63 link does explain how to retrofit the PSK63 engine into programs that don't natively support PSK63, I'll have to give it a shot with DX4WIN). However, the advantage is that it's integrated into DX4WIN, so clicking on a callsign will automatically put the callsign into the callsign field of the logger, etc. For me, this is fine for casual contacts, or even trying to work a DXPedition, though I don't think I'd really want to use it for a contest.

For those of you who might not have seen PSK31 in action, the screenshot here from DX4WIN shows that I've got two different QSOs that I'm decoding "listening to" at the same time, with the window on the left being the primary frequency (meaning that if I were to transmit, it would transmit there) and the window on the right showing a secondary frequency QSO. Note again that this is all done in software, the radio is actually in SSB mode and all the magic happens on the computer. Some of the more advanced programs are capable of decoding many more conversations at once.

For RTTY use, MMTTY is the way to go. MMTTY is definitely the cream of the crop here, and has all the bells and whistles you could ever want. The author of MMTTY, Mako (JE3HHT) has
allowed programmers to integrate MMTTY into their programs, so it's very well supported by most logging programs (both DX4WIN and the N1MM loggers that I user support it), but it can also be used as a standalone program. In fact, the standalone program has support built in for at least a few popular contests, and I have on occasion done a RTTY contest entirely with MMTTY (though usually at the end I export the logs and import them into N1MM for score computation and DX4WIN to track everything else). There's a lot to learn about this powerful program, and aside from the information on the authors website, I highly recommend the AA5AU RTTY page, which walks you though how to use MMTTY as well as giving a general explanation about what RTTY is.

Of course, there is another very well-known mode that I think can be called digital: CW. Both of my two main logging programs support sending CW directly from the program, either with macros o
r via the keyboard. N1MM has a very high degree of integration in that it's easy to configure macros to use during a contest that will take the callsign that you've just entered and put it into a macro along with the contest exchange, including things like a changing serial number.

However, I do use one standalone tool (which can run along with my loggers) to help me copy CW. Although I know that my CW copying skills have improved, they have quite a long way to go before I'll be able to comfortably and confidently copy even a formatted contest exchange at high (30+ wpm) speeds. Although I can copy, by ear, certain elements of an exchange (like my callsign,
typical RST reports, key phrases like "UP" or "AGN?"), for contest use and (less often) for working DX contacts I will use a CW reader program called CwGet. I've been using CwGet for several years now, though I have been able to rely on it less and less as time passes. What it's really good for, as far as I'm concerned, is to help me make sure that I've got a callsign correct or a complex contest exchange correct. As much as I wish that I could be like my friend Larry, N4VA, who seems to be able to carry on a CW QSO and hold a conversation with someone in the room at the same time, I'm just not quite there yet, and I admit to using CwGet as a security blanket.

To explain what's shown in the screen shot, there are 3 window on the screen: The top window shows where in the bandpass CwGet is "listening" (in this case, it's at 592Hz, which is the audio tone my receiving is generating for the CW being received), the second window shows the decoded text, and the bottom window shows the dihs and dahs coming in. The red horizontal line is essentially a "squelch", meaning that anything below that line will be ignored. In the particular screenshot here, CwGet is copying the weekly DX Bulletin from the ARRL. (This was from their 40m broadcast, and given that I've relatively close to ARRL HQ, it's a very strong signal, so the decoding is perfect; this isn't always the case.)

Incidentally, both CwGet and the PSK31 decoder have some other interesting uses: A while ago, there was an odd hum on the output of one of the local 2m FM repeaters. I fed the audio into CwGet and I was able to figure out that what I was hearing was the CTCSS (PL) tone for that repeater, which was just a bit louder than it should have been.

I've got one more part in this series, where I'll talk about a few miscellaneous tools that didn't fit into any of the previous categories.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Tools for Ham Radio - Part 2

This is the second in a series of posts (the first is here) where I'll be talking about the tools that I use for ham radio.

The Propagation Tools
I am, by no stretch of the imagination, a propagation expert. However, I have learned a little bit about how propagation works and what some of the magic numbers mean. If you want to learn more about propagation, I highly recommend picking up a copy of The NEW Shortwave Propagation Handbook and do a web search in your favorite search engine
for '"HF propagation" introduction' (link searches on Google).

The tool that I probably use the most is W6ELProp, written by Shel, W6EL. The basic model of
operation is that you give W6ELprop two endpoints (usually your location and the location of some stations that you'd like to work; in the image captured here I've used my home location and Congo (TN) in Africa) and some information about the current propagation conditions (which are available from many sources; I'll discuss that in another post). Oversimplifying a bit, what W6ELProp does is to calculate when you're most likely to be able to make contact with that station and which band you should use. Actually, it shows predictions for all times of day and for whatever bands you've requested. You get to make the decision as to what's the best time to operate. Like other propagation tools, I use this as a guide. I've found times when it's apparently 100% accurate (in other words, I heard the station I was looking for, when and where predicted), but I've also found times when I couldn't hear a peep and, happily, I've heard stations booming in when the predictions said they shouldn't be there at all. Just because a propagation tools says there isn't propagation remember that it is only a prediction based on an imperfect model.

Incidentally, the screenshot here is just one of a number of different ways to display the data. There are tables, graphs, and maps available, all of which have their individual use. The best way to learn which works for you is to play around with it a bit.

The next tool I use is called VOAProp, written by Julian, G4ILO. VOAProp is a graphical front-end for VOACAP, a HF propagation prediction "engine" originally written to support the Voice Of America broadcasts. VOACAP is very powerful, but not very user-friendly, so Julian built this great graphical front end for it. The model for VOAProp is a bit different than W6ELProp: Where W6ELprop is most useful for a scenario where you'd like to know when and where to work a particular location, VOAProp is most useful for answering the question "at a given time and band, what stations am I most like to be able to contact?". You can do the same thing with either of the two tools I've mentioned so far (and in the screen capture shown here, I am pointing specifically to Africa as I did with W6ELProp; the bars on the lower right-hand part of the screen show that decent propagation is predicted, and in fact, I can hear a TN station at this time.) VOAProp has some nice features, including the ability to automatically fetch the propagation information from sources on the Internet (you have to manually enter it into W6ELProp)

The next tool that I use is called HamCAP, written by Alex, VE3NEA. Like VOAProp, HamCAP is
also based on the VOAPROP propagation engine. The graphics in HamCAP show where propagation is available graphically similar to VOAProp. It can be used to produce predictions to a particularly location on top of the general map, which is what's being shown in the screen capture here. (Again, showing the path from K2DBK to TN.) The lighter areas are where propagation is better, and you'll note that there's no skip propagation show local to me on 20 meters, which is what this image shows.

The reason why I first started using HamCAP was because it could produce a set of prediction charts for various times and bands in a form that could be uploaded to a website for a DXpedition.
I used it to produce this set of propagation prediction charts for my ZF2DK operation earlier this year. (Click on different times and bands to see what the propagation would have been; remember that the dates for this were at the end of July 2007, so things are likely to be different now.) Incidentally, I want to point out that although I assisted Alex with fixing some minor problems with the display in browsers other than IE, he did all the hard work, I just tweaked a teeny bit of javascript.

I have a couple of final comments about these tools: First, I've really glossed over their capabilities. Download them and try them yourself to see what they can really do. (Psst ... they are all free!) Don't expect to learn everything about them in a few minutes, but the investment in time will be worth it. Second, as I mentioned before, bear in mind that all these tools can do is to predict, using mathematical models. The models aren't perfect, and neither is the data that you'll be feeding into them. So use the output from these tools with that in mind. Just because the tools predict no propagation the only way you'll know for sure is to get on the air.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Tools for Ham Radio - Part 1

As hams, most of us have at least a small toolbox that we use to maintain our stations. Others have a much bigger collection of tools that they use to build and troubleshoot things.

But for the next few postings, I'd like to talk about a different kind of toolbox: a software toolbox.

Just like the one in the picture, my ham radio software toolbox has several compartments and different types of tools, depending on the job that I want to do. I'll describe a few of the compartments that I have and the tools that I use. Before I start, I will say that these are tools that I've found work for me. There may be tools that work better for you (and there are are probably some that would work better for me too, but you have to start somewhere.) Since I'm a Windows XP user, everything I'll discuss runs on that platform. (Sorry to the Mac and Linux guys.) I have no financial interest in any of the software that I'll talk about, other than in the case of the commercial products, I'd sure like to see those companies stay around for a while. So let's go see what's in the toolbox.

The Logging Tools

For the most part, I use two different types of tools, depending on why I'm logging contacts. I guess I consider myself a DXer first, so I use a DX logging program that I've found works well for me, which is DX4WIN. (Hmm, seems that their home page is a bit out of date. Fortunately, the software isn't.) DX4WIN allows me to track progress towards awards like DXCC, IOTA, and WAS (and many more), and does a nice job handling QSLing chores. It has reasonable integration with Logbook of The World, and is able to import and export information in a wide variety of formats. That's important, because I import data into DX4WIN from my contest logging program (more about that in a bit), and occasionally I'll even need to export from DX4WIN to my contest logger. I consider this my primary logging program, and everything that I log eventually winds up in DX4WIN.

The other logging tool type I use is when I'm participating in a contest. For that, I use the amazing N1MM Logger. N1MM (the logger, not Tom, N1MM) is rapidly becoming the choice of a lot of very serious contest stations because of it's flexibility, power, and support, but I find it great to use for my casual contesting as well. It can integrate with multiple radios, has built-in CW and voice keyers, can work with network connected multi-op stations, and, well, just about does everything about contesting really well. As if that wasn't enough, it's freeware and open source. (I actually did a couple of very small pieces to support Icom radios back when it wasn't as well known.) As I mentioned before, the main repository for all my QSL data is DX4WIN, so when I finish a contest, I export the data in a number of formats that I need, including Cabrillo for the contest submission, and ADIF for uploading to Logbook of The World and importing into DX4WIN. Just a couple of mouse clicks is all it takes.

One of the things that's really nice about being able to move data between the programs is that occasionally I'll decide to just make a couple of contacts in a contest to "give out points", and I'll start off using DX4WIN. (This is especially true during some of the DX contests when I know I won't really have a lot of time to participte, but find that there's some really good DX to chase. This also only works when there's a relatively simple contest exchange, since DX4WIN isn't well-suited to keeping track of complex contest exchanges). At the end of the contest, since I'm going to submit my log anyway, I'll export the data from DX4WIN into N1MM, and allow N1MM to do all the scoring duties and produce the required Cabrillo format file. It literally takes me less time to do the export/import process than it's taken me to type this paragraph (and I'm a fairly decent typist).

When I began to write this entry, I figured that I'd be able to cover all of the "compartments" that I wanted to discuss in a single entry, but I've realized that it's going to take more to cover everything, so this will be the first is a short series. Among the other compartments that I'll discuss (not necessarily in this order) will be the propagation compartment, the digital modes compartment, and maybe a few others.

See you next time.

Welcome to the new readers

I wanted to say a quick hello and welcome to all my new readers. Many of you are no doubt here thanks to Pat, N0HR who has started to include my blog in the list of blogs he's put into his terrific Ham Radio Toolbar. If you haven't seen this yet, check it out, it's got a lot of useful tools. I've been a fan of Propfire (a tool that works with Firefox to display propagation information in your browser window) for a long time. Ham Radio Toolbar works with both IE and Firefox and displays propagation info and a lot more. Also, be sure to check out the rest of Pat's website (, he's got a lot of other useful information and goodies there.

I'll be back soon with a regular update, but thanks to Pat and welcome to everyone.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Time to get up on a (small) soapbox

Most of my postings are about something that I've done, or something that I'm planning (or hoping) to do. I don't usually get up on a soapbox about a topic, but something occurred to me last week that I wanted to share.

As many of you are probably aware, last weekend was the CW flavor of the CQ WorldWide DX Contest. As with many of the big DX contests, a lot of folks travel to rare, semi-rare, and not-so-rare locations to operate. Many of the folks who'll be operating at these locations get there at least a few days early so that they can make sure that their stations are running properly, to check propagation, and maybe even to get in a few hours of relaxation before the contest starts.

One of my favorite things about all this is that a lot of these stations are on the air both prior to and after the contest. Sometimes they'll operate on the contest bands, but often they'll operate on the WARC bands (12, 17, and 30m) which provides an opportunity for a contact on those bands with what might otherwise be a difficult location. Even if only operating on the other bands, they are providing the opportunity for others to make contacts. Most of these operators are pretty good about QSLing, and a lot of them seem to come from the US, meaning that, at least for those of us who live here, it's relatively easy and inexpensive to get a QSL card back from one of those stations, if needed. And of course, these stations are all on the air during the contest as well, providing yet another opportunity (even if it's a rather frantic one) to make that contact.

So what's the problem? The problem is that after most contests, the various ham-related lists (or reflectors, if you prefer) all start to fill up with messages about how the bands were "too crowded with contesters" over the previous weekend. It tends to go downhill from there. To be fair, some of the writers have some valid points: There is no excuse for jumping in to CQ over an existing QSO; There's no excuse for not following all the ham radio rules (both laws and gentlemens' agreements); There's no excuse for a signal that's a mile wide and splattering up and down the band. But all of these things hold true regardless of whether there is a contest going on.

Although I'm still a newbie ham at about 7 1/2 years since I got my first license, I have been involved with all sorts of off-air discussions about ham radio since I first got involved. (In fact, unlike some who say that the Internet is causing the decline of ham radio, my personal view is quite the opposite; without access to the Internet I certainly wouldn't have gotten as involved as I did, if I got involved at all. But that's another topic.) I've noticed in my relatively short ham life that the cycle on these lists seems to be the same: Someone (or several people) will complain that (as previously noted), the bands were full of contesters. A few others chime in. A battle of words ensues (and not always a very civil battle), things escalate, and finally (hopefully) a moderator steps in to cool things down. Wait a week or two for the next contest and repeat.

What's bothering me is that I don't hear these same people complaining when the contesters show up a week before or a week after a contest to hand them that "new one" that they needed. Of course, there's no way to know if the complainers refuse to make a contact with one of the "offending" stations before or after the contest, but I'll bet they do.

The spectrum that we as hams have to use is pretty limited, and the best way that we can protect it is by keeping it active. One of the ways that happens is by having contests, and, unfortunately, sometimes those contests will collide with other users. While it would be nice if everyone could have their cake and eat it too (make sure that we don't loose spectrum and still keep things "open" so that folks can chat exactly wherever on the bands, and whenever they like), but like many other things in life, ham radio requires cooperation with others.

So to those who aren't happy that their regular "sked" had to move up or down the band a bit, or maybe didn't happen at all, my humble advice would be to make the best of it. If you're not a contester, maybe you can find another reason to work just a handful of stations in the contest for your own purposes. If you really don't want to get involved at all, spend some time cleaning out your shack (c'mon, you know it's a mess ... mine sure is) or making contacts on a non-contest band or mode. Most contests are 48 hours or shorter, and while weekend time is prime time for radio, that still leaves another 120 hours in the week.

Now, where'd I put that stepladder, this soapbox seems a lot higher than when I first climbed on.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Almost too busy for radio

I don't consider myself a particularly prolific blogger, but I do try to make time to get at least one entry in per week. (I don't count little things like an update for my Twitter ID, etc.) Lately, things have been really busy at work, so much so that I haven't been able to get on the air much (after working at the office, I've come home fairly late, eaten dinner, and wound up working from home for a few hours). In turn, that means that I haven't had much to blog about, since the bulk of what I blog about is at least inspired in some way by what I do when I'm on the air. No radio = no blogging. That's no good.

This weekend is the ARRL November SSB Sweepstakes contest, one of the major contests in North America. It's not one of my favorite contests, because I prefer to work DX either as just regular contacts or during contests, but since I had some time this weekend I thought that I'd give it a shot.

I learned a couple of things by playing in the contest, and re-learned one very important thing. I'll save that for last.

Being a small station, I know I'm not truly competitive and I don't really expect to win even a sectional award in such a major contest. That doesn't mean that I don't want to do as well as I can, but it also means that I'm willing to try some things that I might not ordinarily do to learn. If you will, I'm investing now for payoff later.

During these big contests, on which ever band is open the most, you'll hear wall-to-wall strong stations, who are busy working station after station (or "running stations", as it's called). These stations are usually multi-operator, high-power (often up to the legal limit of 1500W) with large antennas, and they can just run station after station for the duration of the contest. Since they've got an almost endless pool to work, they are typically going to pick off the strongest stations since they are the easiest to work. That makes it very hard for a guy like me.

I decided to play around on different bands at different times of the day to see what might work for me. It turns out that 15 meters was open on Sunday afternoon, although signals would go from "loud and clear" to virtually non-existent for the same station sometimes in less than a minute. (This is what hams call QSB.) What I did was to stick it out on 15m for a while and try to catch stations on the "upswing". If I did the contact quickly, it usually worked surprisingly well. The really good news is that a lot of other stations were off on other bands (mostly 20 meters) which was a lot more stable. The guys on 15m were calling CQ without anybody answering, so as long as I could hear them reasonably well (i.e., I was at the QSB peak, not trough), I could get through easily. That made things a whole lot of fun. I'll definitely keep that in my bag of tricks for the future.

Another thing I learned was to get on 75 meters late at night. Sharon & I had gone out for dinner and got home late on Saturday night. We watched a little TV, and I came down to turn off the radio and computer, and decided to make a couple of contacts. It was about 12:30AM (EST) at this point, and I figured I'd just spend a few minutes then turn in. The big surprise for me was that I probably worked more stations faster starting at that point on 75 meters than I'd done all day (and probably faster that all day today as well. There were a lot of stations, but most of them weren't working anybody, just CQing, so usually it was one quick call from me and they were in the log. I wound up will well over 100 stations on 75m just from Saturday alone, and finally at about 2:30AM I decided to head up for bed. Another lesson learned: Go out, have a nice dinner, then, after midnight, have fun on 75m.

As I mentioned, I re-learned something too: Radio can be relaxing. I hadn't made a specific plan for this contest, but I figured that over the course of the 2 days (actually the contest runs for 30 hours, you can operate 24 maximum) I would operation maybe 4 hours. I wound up operating about 12 hours, mostly because I was having fun doing it. I know that I'm not going to win anything, and I really don't care about that. It was nice to forget about work and whatever other stresses I deal with and just "play radio".

Monday, November 12, 2007

Twitter id change

Real quick update: I just changed my ID on twitter to k2dbk since I sort of plan to keep most postings there ham-related. I'm not sure if Twitter is smart enough to keep you following me once I change my ID, but I figure I'd just post something here anyway.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

2007 CQ WorldWide DX SSB Contest

Last weekend was the CQ WorldWide DX Contest (Single Sideband; the CW version takes place in November). Regular reader know that I "fool around" in contests (and occasionally actually win an award here and there), but rarely take things very seriously. CQ WW DX is considered one of the "big" DX contests annually, so there's a lot of activity. As I've previously mentioned, I often shy away from the really big contests because with my "peanut whistle" station ("peanut whistle" is a term used in ham radio to refer to a relatively small station; the other end of the scale is "big gun", like K3LR or W3LPL [my pictures taken during his 2005 open house] or dozens of others), it's very difficult to even make contacts, much less even pretend to be competitive. On top of that, being at the bottom of the solar cycle makes things worse, and very often it's tough for me to devote any considerable amount of time over a weekend uninterrupted. (I know; contest purists would tell me to make time. I try, but family and other obligations take precedence.)

As it turns out, last weekend I had a bit more time to devote to the contest that I originally expected. Sharon was in Florida visiting her Mom for the weekend, and I needed to be at home pretty much the whole weekend (fortunately, I pretty much just need to physically be around the house, most of what I was home for didn't require me to be doing anything other than just being here). As a result, I wound up spending a lot more time in front of the radio (probably around 14 hours total over the weekend) than I'd planned.

I had originally meant to take some notes during the contest so that I could write a bit about it here, but that just didn't happen. As a result, I'll try to rely on my memory (which means that this won't be nearly as long as I would have liked.)

A few interesting thing that I do remember are that I was surprised at the number of stations that I was (eventually) able to work on 15m, and even 10m, at this point in the solar cycle. I worked 5H3EE surprisingly easily early Saturday afternoon on 15m. He was not very strong, and I guess a lot of folks didn't hear him. I called him once and he responded to my call. That was fun. Late Saturday night, I worked two stations on 160m, which is unusual enough, but by doing that, I think this was the first time that I've ever worked stations on all 6 (10, 15, 20, 40, 80, and 160) bands available during a DX contest.

I also manged to work V4/NE1RD from St. Kitts, though the conditions were so rough that I could barely hear him. As it happens, I'd set up my logging program to record the audio from each contact, because I thought it would be fun to go back and listen to it later, and to show just how tough it was to copy Scott, I've upload a portion of the audio here. It's pretty tough to hear (you'll probably want to turn up the volume a bit), but you'll hear Scott CQing, me answering (sorry for the mis-match in the audio levels), we exchange reports, and things pretty much go downhill from there, unfortunately. This was a reflection on how the conditions were the whole weekend, though things improved dramatically on Sunday.

I tried to set a goal for the contest, and I figured that if nothing else, I'd try to beat my score from last year. I had about 53,000 points (which isn't very much, but I don't recall if I had a lot of time last year). After working the contest for about 4 or 5 hours Friday night and Saturday afternoon (ok, I slept in and didn't get on the air until the afternoon!), I had serious doubts that I'd even come close. I don't recall where I was at the end of Saturday, but I was seriously considering not even bothering to get back on the air on Sunday, because there's only so many times that I'm willing to try to work a run-of-the-mill non-rare DX station without them hearing me. It can get quite frustrating. A few friends who I spoke to who have relatively small stations had the same results, so at least I knew it wasn't just me.

Fortunately, things were a lot better on Sunday, and it actually became fun to contest again. As it turns out, I wound up more than doubling last year's score, although it was nowhere near a personal best for that contest. (To be fair to myself, I think my best effort was in 2002 or 2003, when the sunspot cycle was a lot more cooperative, although I've certainly got a lot more experience now than I did then.)

Here's to hoping that the conditions are improved for next year!

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.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

It takes patience

By pretty much all accounts, we are either at, or very close to, the bottom of the current solar cycle. For those of us who like to bounce signals off the ether (no, not ethernet), that means that it's generally a lot harder to work distant stations. In fact, it's just about impossible on some bands, because the ionization required to support propagation on those bands is either entirely absent, or is at such a low level, that it's effectively non-existant.

My home station is pretty modest: I have an Icom 756 ProII and use either a Heil Pro-set Plus (generally for contesting), my relatively new Heil GM4, or even my Bencher BY-1 paddles. That feeds into a G5RV antenna in the backyard, which is strung between two trees at a height of between around 30' to maybe 45'. (One end is lower, it was a somewhat smaller tree.)

The G5RV (I'm referring now to the antenna, not to Louis Varney, G5RV who designed it) is a compromise antenna.(See the first G5RV link for lots of details on that aspect.) It's designed to work on all bands between 10m (28mHz) and 80m (3.5mHz), although I've been able to use mine (with less-than-stellar results) on 6m (50mHz) and 160m (1.8mHz) as well. When I first got interested in HF, I wanted to put up an antenna that would work on most of the HF bands, would be relatively inexpensive, and would be easy to install. Although getting the feedline into what is now my permanent shack was quite a challenge (I'll save that story for another post), a bunch of folks from my radio club came over and helped get the G5RV (as well as a Coment GP-15 tri-band vertical for 2m, 70cm, and 6m) up in the air and set up.

When I was trying to figure out what kind of antenna to put up, I pretty quickly came to the conclusion that for HF, I was going to be using some kind of wire antenna, as opposed to a beam of some type. Quite a few people I spoke to told me that a G5RV would work, but not very well, and I probably wouldn't work a lot of DX. Fortunately (for me), at least the latter part of that statement proved to be wrong.

I was fortunate to start working DX towards the end of 2000, at which point Solar Cycle 23 was just at the first of a double-peak (see the earlier link to see what I'm talking about), so it was relatively easy to work all over the world. 20m, the workhorse band, was open until very late at night (more like very early the next morning). I hadn't really gotten the hang of working 40m or 80m, but there was still plenty of DX the higher bands.

When I commented to some of the G5RV nay-sayers that I seemed to be having little trouble working plenty of DX, they attributed that to the fact that it was the peak of the solar cycle, plus the fact that as a relatively new DXer, almost everything was new, so it just seemed like things were working out.

So, fast forward to late summer of 2007. The bands are in terrible shape, there's noise,
propagation in general is just lousy, and some of the key indicators of solar activity, such as solar flux, look like an EKG of a patient who is dead. (At times when the cycle was at it's peak, the base level was higher, and the spikes would go to the M and X levels frequently.) There are plenty of places on the web to get a good explanation of what all this means (and I highly recommend picking up a copy of "The New Shortwave Propagation Handbook" by Jacobs, Cohen, and Rose if you want to really learn something about the subject).

Anyway, despite all the difficulties, I do try to work a little DX as often as I can. It's more exciting when there's a DXpedition going on to an interesting place, but when there isn't, I'll try to find a station in a country that I haven't worked on some new band or new mode (or both), just to keep the cobwebs from forming on my microphone or my key. But as it happens, there is a pretty interesting DXpedition going on at the moment from a place called St. Brandon, an island in the Indian Ocean just north of Maurtius. The callsign for the operation is 3B7C and the group doing this is the 5 Star DXers Association, who got together for to do things like this. St. Brandon is relatively rare as DXCC entities go, although there was a team operating from there as 3B7SP earlier this year (who were originally supposed to operate from another nearby island.)

Although I worked 3B7SP when they were on, I wanted to try to work 3B7C to make some contacts on new bands. Because 3B7 is rare, as expected, the pileups were huge, especially during the first few days. I made a few attempts to contact them during the first few days of their operation on 40m, which should have been (and in fact, was) the best place to try to work them, but I wasn't able to get through. However, as time went on, I kept trying, first in the spots where I figured I'd have the best chance to work them (40m and 80m), and then eventually on 20m and 17m.

The key here for me, and this is where it ties into the post title, is that you have to be patient. On several nights, I sat by the radio, calling over and over again while trying to figure out their split pattern (when it wasn't obvious). Fortunately, my radio has a built-in voice & CW keyer, and the computer has a CW keyer, so it didn't have to do it "manually" for the whole time, but I did have to listen, and listen, and listen. Most importantly, I had to be trying to make a contact, not griping on some email reflector about how poor the conditions are (yes, I complained here, but that was after I'd made the contact). It seems that too many people find excuses ("The bands are just no good", "my antenna isn't good enough", etc.) rather than actually getting in front of the radio and trying to make a contact. I can guarantee you that you will not make a DX contact on the air without using your radio. That's what I do, and to date, it's netted me about 283 different DXCC entities, all of which were worked with my 100 watts into a compromise antenna. I had to be patient, but it's worked well.

On an unrelated note, after Scott, NE1RD, mentioned that he'd been toying with Twitter, I decided to give it a shot as well. You can view my feed on their website, and there are other options to follow it in other ways as well.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Hey, you never know!

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I was surprised to discover that I'd won the SMIRK contest for the 2nd call area. Originally, I hadn't even planned to submit my log, but Larry, N4VA, talked me into it, and I'm glad he did. I also learned a lesson, which is to always submit your log. Not surprisingly, Larry's not the only one who recommends that.

This month, Scot, K9JY, has been running a series of contesting tips in his blog. Some are pretty obvious, some not so, but all are worthwhile reading. Today's posting is about exactly what I discussed in the first paragraph, always submitting your log. I won't rehash what he posted (read the link for the details) but as I've mentioned, my experience is that it's easy to do (since other than about my first 5 or 10 HF contacts, I've always logged electronically) and every now and then, you might find that you actually win something.

Those of you who know me know that I'm far from a serious contester, though I do occasionally get involved enough to want to try to reach some self-set goal. Sometimes that goal is make a certain number of contacts, sometimes to better my score from a previous year (which can be a real challenge as the solar cycle bottoms out, or in a 6m contest when there is good sporadic E-skip one year, and none the next), or sometimes to hit a target set by the contest sponsor at which point you'll automatically receive a participation certificate. I've done that a bunch of times, and have gotten nice certificates from several contests, including the California QSO Party, the Kentucky QSO Party, and even won (again, unexpectedly) for NJ in the Virginia QSO Party.

I agree with Scot: If you go to the trouble of making the contacts, go ahead and submit your log. As the ad for the New York Lottery says "Hey, you never know!".

Monday, September 03, 2007

ZF2DK cards going out

Just a quick note to let folks know that the QSL cards that I talked about previously have been printed up. I've responded to those cards that I've received and they'll be going in the mail this week.

As a side note, I wound up printing the cards on Staples "Gloss White Photo Quality Postcards" (Staples item #490861) and I'm very happy with the results. I'd previously used a non-gloss card when printed my own cards, and they came out OK, but these really do look a lot nicer. The only problem (which I knew about in advance) is that the cards separate into 5 1/2" x 4 1/4" cards, and I need to trim them down to be 5 1/2" x 3 1/2" to be "standard" QSL size. I wouldn't want to do that for hundreds of cards, but for the couple of dozen that I'll wind up sending out, I can deal with it.

I would be curious to know if anyone who prints their own cards on a regular basis has found a card stock that they like better, especially if it doesn't involve having to trim the printed cards.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Tips for operating from the Caymans - A summary

I thought I was done with posts about my Cayman trip, but something came up recently that I thought would be a useful addition to the blog. A friend forwarded a note to me from another ham from a private club mailing list, asking for information about operating from the Cayman Islands. Although most of this information is contained elsewhere here, I wrote the other ham an email with a lot of the relatively important information summarized. I thought it might be useful to post my email as a summary which I could use to refer folks to in the future. Here's the letter, with a few minor edits.

First of all, the key to getting your license is to START EARLY! I started in March and didn't get the license until May. Things down there work on "island time", you need to be prepared to wait a bit. The folks are all very nice, it's just that it might take a couple of weeks for them to get around to answering an email. The Caymanian equivalent of the FCC is the ICTA, which is at Unfortunately, although there's a link for Amateur radio, it's marked "coming soon", and has been since I first looked back in February 2007. Remember, it's island time. One note about the delay in getting a response is that the main person to contact for Amateur licensing, Kevin Washington, apparently has been ill, so he's not always in the office. Kevin's email is I also dealt with Nikki Forbes,, and there's also the address (which I think may go to both of them).

Note that the Cayman license is good for one year from date of issue. Also, note that in order to bring radio gear into the country, you need to get (and pay for; I think it was USD$ 12) an import permit. I traveled pretty light, and if I hadn't said something to the customs folks there, I doubt they would have even noticed that I had any gear with me, but I have heard from others who've been down there that if you don't have an import permit (and they find your gear), you'll be required to post a cash bond equal to the value of the gear. (They don't want you "importing" gear that's going to stay on the island.) The real pain in that case, aside from having to lay out the money, is going through the process to collect it when you're coming back. I figured that the $12 import permit was a good insurance policy. In my case, I gave the customs agent the form, she had to ask a few people to figure out what to do with it, then she handed it back to me, and said "ok, thanks". Of course, if you wind up staying at a place where you don't need to bring gear, it won't be an issue.

Probably the best person to contact regarding all things ham radio down there is Andrew Eden, ZF1EJ. His email is Andrew runs the Cayman club station, ZF1A. I didn't get a chance to operate from there, but from speaking with others I understand that if you bring your own rig, you can operate from there (it's an antennas-only shack, or at least it was from what others have told me), though I'm not sure what kind of arrangements you'd need to make. However, Andrew was very helpful in responding to all of my questions about radio in general, the island, and dealing with the ICTA. He normally will respond pretty quickly to email, so if you don't hear back from him after a few days to a week, drop him a gentle reminder (like everyone, he gets busy) and I'm sure you'll hear back from him.

The one other thing that I can think of off the top of my head is to be sure to let folks know that you're going. I documented the list of folks that I contacted to let them know I was going. There are probably others that I missed, but I have to say that I was pretty amazed at how many places my announcement showed up after sending to this list:

Name of publication/list: Contact
Ohio/Penn DX Bulletin: kb8nw@arrl.net425
DX News: Mauro Pregliasco, I1JQJ (
Daily DX:

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.