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!