Saturday, January 26, 2008

Many happy returns

I thought that I'd do a follow-up on the QSLing post from last month. It's been just over four weeks since the big batch of cards went out, and I thought that it would be interesting to take a look at the return rate.

The cards all went out right around the 27th of December, and I sent out a total of 111 cards direct. (I'll ignore the bureau cards, since it's way too soon for any returns from them.) I was pleasantly surprised to get the first return back on January 2. (The station was in New Jersey, as am I, but that was still pretty quick). I got another card or two a day for the first week after sending, but on the 5th of January the flood started. On that day, I got 15 cards back (including one bad address), and on the following Monday (January 7), I got 11 cards back. One of the cards that came in on the 7th was TX5NK via DJ8NK, which proves, if nothing else, that the mail between the US and Germany is pretty efficient. By the end of the 2nd week after sending the cards, I'd received back 39, or around 35%.

For the next week after that, I'd get an average of around 2 per day back, but this week I got none until today, when I received one confirming UP0L (Kazahkstan), which confirmed my 277th all-time country. As of today, about 4 weeks after sending out the cards, I'm at about a 46% return rate.

Looking at the cards that came back, although I've received some of the DX cards back (those that were sent outside the US), I haven't received a significant portion, which doesn't surprise me. Despite the fast turnaround for that first card via DJ8NK, I expected that it will take a month or two for many of cards sent overseas to come back. Some of that is due to the mail, and some no doubt due to the time it takes the station on the other end to respond. As I've pointed out, although I personally make it a point to turn around any request that I get within a day, not everyone can do that, and I know that some of bigger stations and managers only do QSLing on a periodic basis.

I am a little disappointed that I haven't received more of the domestic cards back. I've gotten back 35 cards, but 29 are still outstanding. Hopefully those are from folks who just haven't gotten around to answering my card. Every one of the cards I sent out domestically was sent with a SASE, and all the non-US cards went out either with either an IRC or green stamps. (That's ham-speak for cash for return postage.) Actually, the US return rate is actually a bit worse than that: I checked to see how many of the DX cards went via a US route (usually a manager), and there are still a bunch of them outstanding. Some of those cards are going via well-known managers, and I'm positive that I will get them back, but I'm wondering what the final return rate will be?

I should say that although it sounds like I'm being impatient, I realize that for the most part, QSLing is not an instant gratification part of this hobby. Certainly it took me quite a while to get around to sending a lot of those cards, and I don't expect to see returns from the bureau cards for a year or more. I just hope that QSLing isn't on the way to becoming a lost art, especially when someone has made it so that all you need to do is to drop a card into the pre-addressed postage-paid envelope.

One final comment while on the topic of QSLing: I do like to get paper cards back, but I'm also a big fan of the ARRL's Logbook Of The World, as I have mentioned previously. For getting band or mode "fills", it's terrific, and I don't think that I'm losing anything by not having yet another piece of cardboard from a station that I've already worked on 4 other bands. As the cost of QSLing continues to rise, it's a great way to save money.

Although there are websites that give all kinds of statistics about who is using LoTW, I've posted a poll on my blog that asks if you use LoTW, and if not, why not. I listed a couple of common ones, but if you've answered "No (Other)", I'd appreciate it if you'd post a comment here telling why. Please note that if you receive this post via an RSS feed or from another website, you will need to visit my blog and scroll down a bit to see the poll on the right side.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

How much technology is too much?

It's soapbox time again.

I was chatting with my friend Larry, N4VA, the other day about some of the discussions that have come up on various reflectors about the use of a relatively new near real-time system for displaying contest scores while the contest is underway. The website for this system is and you can check out the CQ-Contesting archives (search for "getscores" as a starting point) if you're interested in the details of the discussion. (The main point of contention is whether using that site puts one into an assisted category for a contest even if otherwise operating as a single operator).

Larry's complaint wasn't about whether or not using the site constituted assistance, but rather he was complaining that the computer technology seems to get getting in the way of using the radio. (I found it amusing the our chat took place entirely using an instant messaging client, facilitated at each end by a computer with the Internet in the middle, but that's not the point.)

Larry's been a ham for a relatively long time now, and for years said "What would I ever need a computer for?"© I gradually badgered him into moving into the computer age while he was badgering me about working on my CW so that I could pass my General class test and work some nice juicy DX. Both of us decided that it was easier just to get on with it, so Larry started using computers and I started using CW. (I will be the first to admit that Larry's computer skills are far better than my CW skills.)

But here's Larry's complaint, and I think he's got a point: Larry said that what would be required to post his scores to the Getscores site would be that he'd need to start using electronic logging (something that's been on his to-do list for a while, and is currently pretty close to the top of my list of "things to bug Larry about"), then figure out how to configure the logger to upload the scores to Getscore, etc. My response was "well, logging programs like N1MM's contest logger have that functionality built in", but then he mentioned something that was the inspiration for this entry.

I've used electronic logging almost from the very first QSO that I ever logged. (I think I logged something like 8 QSOs on paper when I first got my General ticket, and those were all transferred to the electronic log within a few hours of making those contacts.)

Larry told me that in order to submit your score for certain contests, you are required to submit your log electronically if you have more than a certain number of QSOs. (The North American QSO Party says you must submit electronically if you have 200 QSOs or more, as an example.) Larry has a modest station with a tower, some beams, some wire antennas, and he runs low power. Although he is a member of the Potomac Valley Radio Club, he's not a die-hard contester, and contests for fun. Like myself, Larry knows that it's pretty unlikely that he'll win any significant award (though both of us have been surprised in winning regional awards in contests), but rather he contests because it's a fun thing to do.

Those of you who know me know that I'm a "computer guy", having worked in the industry since I got out of college. While I'm all for technology, I think that when there's a requirement to use a particular technology merely to get credit for participation in a contest, things have gone too far. The argument is that it's not all that difficult to log on a computer, and while I agree with that (rather strongly), the point is that you shouldn't be required to do it. So what's the downside of one guy not participating in the contest because they won't accept his (non-electronic) log?

It's more than you may think. Those of use who contest casually are used to seeing the "big guns" at the top of the scoreboard. But if those big guns only worked each other, contest scores would maybe make it to the double or triple digits, not the multi-million point scores that we see. Who else do they contact? Well, that would be the little pistol stations like Larry and myself, who are in it just for fun. Of the thousands of contacts that these guys make, it seems obvious to me that most of them are casual contesters. So if one guy doesn't bother to participate in the contest because he doesn't want to have to submit his log electronically, what's the big deal? Well, probably not all that much. But what happens if it's a few dozen, or a few hundred people who stop participating because the log submission requirements are (at least to them) too restrictive?

Lest I be bombarded with complaints saying that by submitting on paper, it makes more work for the contest sponsors (I'm having delusions of grandeur, imaging that enough people read this to be able to "bombard" me with anything), I will say that I know that the sponsors have a really tough job, and when everything is submitted electronically, I'm sure it makes the job a lot easier. However, I still think that requiring the use of a particular technology merely to submit your logs is counterproductive to the contest as a whole.

As I've said before in this posting and ad nauseum elsewhere, it's my opinion that ham radio should be fun. Unnecessary participation requirements don't make it fun.

Before I fall off my soapbox, I will say that A) I will continue to encourage Larry to move to computer logging, and B) I will continue to do so myself, but I still think that it should be a personal choice.

Ok, let me step down off this soapbox (psst ... check out that link and what it says about blogs!) and put it back under the desk.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

This page unintentionally left blank

Well, it seems that my goal of trying to write at least one entry a week has slipped away. I usually try to write on either Saturday or Sunday, but I kept putting it off, and before I knew it, the weekend was gone. Unfortunately, this has been pretty close to another "Almost too busy for radio" week. Fortunately, I have managed to spend a little time in front of the radio at night, working J5C in Guinea-Bissau, FO/OH1RX in the Marquesas, and TO5FJ in St. Barts. None of those were completely new countries for me (even though St. Barts is a new DXCC entity, I worked FJ/OH2AM previously), but I did pick up a few new bands or modes for each of them.

Other than that, I have been receiving a steady stream of cards back from the big batch that went out just about three weeks ago. It's great getting everything back, and it's surprising how quickly some of the DX stations are getting their cards back. I'm going to write a bit about this next time, including a look at the return rate.

This weekend is the ARRL January VHF Sweepstakes. I usually participate in that but I'm not quite sure what my weekend plans are, so I'm going to play it by ear. And of course, I'll save some time to get back on schedule for my blog.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Odds & Ends

It looks like this week's blog entry is going to be another potpourri.

I finally finished mailing out the entire pile of cards that I discussed in my last entry, and all the work to send the cards to the outgoing QSL bureau at the ARRL in Newington has been completed. Fortunately, my slight procrastination in actually sending out the bureau cards paid off. Earlier this week, I received a package of cards from the 2nd area incoming QSL bureau which, in addition to confirming cards that I'd sent out, had some new confirmation requests that I needed to send back in return. It was only about five cards, but had I not put them in with the batch that I will try to get out this week, they probably would have waited several months. It's also a good feeling to have zero cards to have to send out. Whew.

What's kind of fun is that now I've already started getting cards back. The majority of the direct cards went out on the 27th of December. I got the first response back on the 31st, which is pretty amazing, even thought it did go to (and come from) a station in NJ. (I believe that the first one back was for VP2MZM via K2DM.) Yesterday was a banner day, with 15 cards coming back (though one was as "Return to Sender"; I had the wrong address for someone). After just over a week, I've gotten back 19 cards already (18 if you don't count the "return to sender"). which works out to be about 16%. (I'd previously said there were 134 cards sent direct; I was mistaken and there were 134 QSOs that I sent out for confirmation direct which went to 111 different stations or managers, so it was "only" 111 out direct.) I don't normally track response rates, but I think it might be interesting to do this time because of the relatively large batch that went out all at once.

I didn't work much DX this week since I was back at work, meaning no radio during the day, but it was nice to hear that Solar Cycle 24 may have finally started this week. (I felt compelled to mention it here, because practically every other ham radio blog and website mentioned it. I didn't want to feel left out.) What will be interesting to see if which group of predictions are right: The ones that say this cycle will be huge, or this cycle will be slightly below average. If I'm still blogging in about 11 years, I'll try to remember to follow-up. The good news is that even though the predictions about this cycle starting in 2007 were wrong, it would appear that those who were predicting another Maunder Minimum type of trough were wrong too.

One thing that I've been squeezing in is to try to help a fellow blogger who is working towards his Amateur Extra license. Although I'm still pretty much a new ham by most standards (first licensed in early 2000), I have managed to pick up a little knowledge here and there, and I enjoy sharing that when I can. We've been emailing back and forth discussing antenna system gain, how you compute Effective Radiated Power (ERP), and trying to understand how much (or how little) a few watts of difference really makes (or doesn't make). It's been fun for me to discuss this, as I try to check my facts, and I usually wind up learning a little with each email.