Sunday, March 30, 2008

Recent activity

I haven't posted in about 10 days, so here's a little update about what's been going on in the radio world for me.

A few weeks ago, I spent a while working in the Virginia QSO Party. Like my entry last year, this wasn't meant to be an all-out assault, but it was something to do to pass the time. (Fortunately, unlike last year, my back seems to be in decent shape, so I wasn't forced to be in the chair.) I wound up doing better than I did last year, with 195 contacts and 76 multipliers (see last years blog entry for an explanation), for a score of around 23,500 points. I was quite happy with that, and had a really good time participating. It'd be nice to win for NJ again, but I guess I'll find that out when they've finished scoring.

Last weekend, I spent a couple of hours in the BARTG RTTY contest. This is one of the big RTTY contests every year, and while I have made a few contacts in the past, this year I had so much fun that I wound up spending a few hours and made 152 contacts. I picked up 8 new countries on RTTY, but again, I had fun. Initially, I wasn't going to participate at all, but I fired up the RTTY decoder on my radio and saw my friend (and fairly well-known RTTY contester) NO2T so I figured I'd get on and give him a point. I then figured that as long as I had everything all set for RTTY, that I might as well just keep going until it wasn't fun anymore, so that's what I did. I think I've mentioned this before, but the automation in the N1MM contest logger is just terrific for digital mode contests. It takes a little work to set up, but once you get everything configured, you click on a callsign that you see on the on-screen RTTY decoder, it fills that into the callsign field of the log, click once to call that station, click on his information to populate it into the fields in the log (this particular contest uses a serial number and the time of the contact), another click to send your info back, and you're done. It's even easier than it sounds, and it really is a lot of fun to operate that way.

On the DX front, I did manage to work TX5C several times on different bands and modes, despite the "help" from the DX Cops that I wrote about recently. That was a new DXCC entity for me (#286), and I've already sent for the QSL cards.

VP6DX (Ducie Island) has what I think is a great method for requesting QSL cards: It's all done online. I wish more dxpeditions would this. They have said that if you want a card via the bureau system, just fill out the form on their website and you'll get a card. If you want it mailed to you directly, they request that you send a donation to cover postage (via Paypal). If you choose to make a small donation beyond what is needed for postage, they list you as a "sponsor", and they even uploaded the "sponsors" contacts to the Logbook of The World first. Since I did that, I was pleased to see my 15 band/mode contacts all show up confirmed in LoTW. Although I'd worked Ducie Island before, these guys did such a terrific job that I'd have sent for a physical card anyway, even though I know they'll eventually upload all the QSOs to LoTW.

Finally, I thought I'd provide an update on the progress of the QSL card returns. When I last wrote about this in January, I had around 46% of the cards returned. That was about 4 weeks after I'd initially sent out the big batch of direct cards. As of today, about 13 weeks after I sent out the original batch, I'm up to 67% of the cards sent out that I've gotten returned. The cards are still coming in, but a lot more slowly, with perhaps one coming in a week. I'm a little disappointed, since a lot of those were domestic (US), so I'll assume that the postal delays are negligible. At some point, maybe in another month or two, I'll check to see which cards haven't been returned and maybe attempt to contact the station I worked via email. I'm curious to try to understand why someone wouldn't return a card that came with an SASE. It will be interesting to see if the trickle completely shuts off after May 12, when the US postal rates go up. That rate increase wasn't even planned when I sent out my original cards, so anyone wishing to send back a confirmation from May 12 forward will have to add postage themselves.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Ear of the beholder

I seem to be on a "soapbox" roll of late, so I might as well continue along those lines. This is somewhat in line with my recent posting about DX Cops in that it deals with those who feel that they have been "wronged" (without good reason, in my opinion) and need to take things into their own hands. (It's also my third post in a row that talks about the recent TX5C DXpedition to Clipperton. Guess I'm in a rut.)

I saw a lot of posts on the DX clusters (basically, a system where hams can announce to their fellow hams that they've contacted, or at least heard, a particular station on a particular frequency; there is also some capability to post single-line comments) that complained about the TX5C guys. Mostly, they seemed to be complaining about how they weren't working some area of the world at the right time, or about how they weren't working their favorite band, or mode, or whatever. Later, I saw complaints that the on-line logs weren't updated instantly after they left the island. (Keep in mind that to do so not only requires a satellite uplink, which they have, but also a stable platform. A small boat is not always a stable platform.)

I have never been on a DXpedtion myself (I don't really count my week as ZF2DK as a DXpedition) so my comments here are based on what I've learned from others whose opinions I respect. One thing that is pretty obvious to me is that these DXpeditions are costly, require a great deal of planning, time, personal committment, and can be quite dangerous. As an example, Bob, N6OX broke his ankle within a few hours of landing at Clipperton on the TX5C dxpedition. Others have been injured on trips, or even worse. These folks are quite literally putting their lives on the line to provide enjoyment for their fellow hams.

Others have said that "if you don't like the way they are doing things, get off your couch, cough up tens of thousands of dollars of your own money, spend a week or two in a burning hot/freezing cold/soaking wet tent, and do the operation yourself". I heartily agree.

While I will admit to being occasionally frustrated, particularly early on, when TX5C seemed to start to work Europe just as 40m got really, really strong to my location, I'd just grumble quietly to myself for about two seconds while I thought about what I wrote about above, and just move on to doing something else. I did not waste my time posting rude comments to the clusters. Many of those were apparently done using someone else's callsign, presumably because the complainers chose to hide behind the relative anonymity of the DX clusters (and the Internet) rather than be brave enough to use their real callsign.

The fact is that while those guys (and gals!) on Clipperton were doing the best job they could (why would anyone do anything else?) others were saying some pretty awful things about them. Why? To what purpose? None of the people saying those things were on Clipperton, they don't know what the conditions were like. Perhaps some of those complaining were part of the problem. Steve, K6SGH, posted a wonderful update detailing some of what went on during the operation. He said, in part:
We would have made a lot more European contacts, especially in hard paths, if European operators would be more courteous and stand by when they are told to stand by. Instead, almost universally, they continue to call on top of each other while we are attempting to working them. It's frustrating for us and deprives others of making contacts. Most operators are more respectful and stand by when told to do so. Operating styles may be diverse, but courtesy should be a universal concept. We all are, after all, members of the same hobby. I have seen on the clusters negative comments by some EU calls that we weren't working them. From my perspective, they need to consider their own behaviors before they start ranting about us.
(By the way, I highly recommend reading that entire post, there's a lot of great stuff in there.)

For myself, while I certainly would have loved to have worked them on many more bands, I did make contact on 3 bands, on both CW and SSB (no RTTY, unfortunately), I thought they did a great job. For radio, it's all in the Ear Of The Beholder.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

DX Cops gotta split

This evening I was listening the TX5C working split on 40m phone.

(Warning: Educational stuff follows!)

For those of you who don't know, working split means the DX transmits on one frequency and listens on another. This is frequently done by DX stations when the pileup (stations calling) are so numerous that it's difficult, if not impossible, to get a contact completed on a single frequency. On most bands, the split might be something like 5kHz up, or if the pileup is really big, maybe a range, like 5-10 or something. Good operators will mention their split frequency every few calls (or more frequently), though it's generally pretty obvious when a station is working split: If it's rare DX and he's working stations you don't hear on his frequency, more likely than not he's working split.

If you're in the US, things get a little trickier on 75/80m and 40m. The frequency allocations are different for the US and most of the rest of the world. In particular, on 40m, most countries outside of the US can use either CW or phone pretty much anywhere in the 40m band, though typically they'll use frequcies above around 7.050mHz. When working split, they will usually listen at 7.150 or above. US amateurs can transmit there, but while most other stations can't it's legal for anyone to listen there.

What happens quite often when someone is working split is that they may accidentally transmit where the DX is transmitting instead of listening. While there are obviously some operators who really don't understand the whole concept of split, I think that others just accidentally transmit on the wrong frequency, realize it, and move. On 40m, it's a particularly bad because if the DX is transmitting in that lower portion of the 40m band and you answer on his frequency, if you're in the US, you are out of the US phone band and in violation of the FCC rules.

(Whew. Enough of the educational stuff.)

Tonight, TX5C was transmitting on 7.063mHz and listening up at around 7.174 and up from there. He wasn't giving his split frequency all that often, but it was pretty obvious that he must have been working split. It seemed that every few calls, someone with a US callsign would call on his frequency, meaning that not only were they calling where the DX wasn't listening, but they were, as I mentioned, in violation of FCC rules. However, in a lot of cases, the US caller would give his callsign once, or even partially, realize what was wrong, and move to the correct frequency.

That didn't stop the dreaded DX Cops. (Thanks for AA0MZ for creating that and other great pages). As soon as the out-of-band guy would start to call, the DX Cops would jump in with great comments like "You're Out of Band!" or "Wrong VFO!" or "Press the split button!". Now I suppose, in theory, these folks might be from some country where transmitting phone on 7.063mHz is legal, but somehow I doubt it. These self-appointed DX Cops seem to feel that the slightest transgression needs instant negative feedback. Of course, not only are these guys themselves (likely) out of band, but they are also failing to identify wherever they are from. Unlike real police, who, in the course of their duties, are empowered to bypass some laws (e.g., police will exceed the speed limit to get to an accident or crime), the DX Cops aren't given any special powers, except by themselves, so they are not only in violation of the regulations requiring specific types of transmissions in a particular part of the band and of the identification requirement, but they are intentionally interfering with another station.

Tonight, it got pretty funny, since one guy in particular would jump in and "correct" the individual almost as soon as he started transmitting. The funny part was that in at least one case that I heard, the person realized their mistake immediately after their initial call to TX5C, and called on the correct frequency. As usual, Officer DX jumps in and says "XX you're out of band!". Meanwhile, as he's saying that, TX5C has just called "XX" (who obviously had switched to the correct frequency) and worked him while Officer DX was yelling at "XX" in the wrong place.

Why do they do it? Is it because they feel that they need to "police the amateur radio service"? (I know as hams, we're supposed to be self-policing, but I don't think that's what the FCC has in mind.) Is it because, as some have speculated, that they feel that they are simply superior to everyone else and have a "right" to do this? (Left as an exercise for the reader.)

I think I've figured it out: In some jurisdictions, police are required to give out a certain number of traffic citations each month for whatever reason. Apparently, these DX Cops must be part of some magic DX jurisdiction where they have a "DX Ticket quota". If they don't hand out enough "tickets", they might loose their jobs. We wouldn't want that to happen ... would we?

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Clipperton and weather

I don't normally post what I would consider "DX news" in this blog, but I thought I'd make an exception. One of the most wanted DXCC Entities is Clipperton Island, and there's a DXpedition underway this week. From what I've read, they've landed on the island, and actually were a bit ahead of schedule, but some folks were wondering why they haven't come on the air yet. I'm no expert, but it certainly looks like the weather is a big issue. Keep in mind that these guys are operating from tents , and, from what I read on their website, had not yet completed setting up their stations when heard from last.

This satellite loop image won't really do much good after a few days of me writing this, but if you look at it soon after posting, you'll see what the problem is. I've included a static image here
for posterity (you might want to click on it to enlarge), which isn't nearly as impressive as the loop. Click on the LatLon box, and locate 10 degrees north, and 109 degrees west. There's a big set of thunderstorms that's apparently been pounding the island. It's rainy here in NJ, but then again I'm sitting in a permanent structure with plenty of hills to break up the straight-line winds. For what it's worth here's the forecast for Clipperton, which doesn't look great either, though it does seem to get better after a few days.

As much as I'd love to work them for an all-time new entity, I sincerely hope that they are doing whatever they need to do to be safe.

And while I'm posting: I'll step up on the soapbox briefly to say that some of the comments that have shown up on the clusters are just plain rude. Essentially, people are complaining that this group of people, who are literally putting their lives on the line for the enjoyment of the DX community haven't shown up on the air exactly on time. Give 'em a break! As others have said: If you think you can do a better job, then stop complaining, spend a few hundred thousand dollars, and go there yourself.

Here's hoping that TX5C is safe.

UPDATE: Just after I posted this, an update (look for the March 8 entry) was posted on the TX5C webpage. In short, it appears that heat, not thunderstorms is the problem. In fact, it looks like the cloud cover is in fact helping, not causing problems.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Quick update

Just a couple of quick notes: Thanks to those of you who voted in my "Do you use Logbook of The World" poll. The end results were that nine of you said you used it, four said it was too complicated to use, and one said they didn't log electronically.

The other thing is that I've had a couple of people either ask me directly or post a link elsewhere about my Ham Radio Tools series that I did a while back. To make the series a little easier to find, I've put a box on the right-hand side so that you can pull up the individual posts more easily.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Like pulling teeth

This past weekend was one of the rare times when there was a major contest (ARRL International DX SSB) and I didn't have plans for much of the time, allowing me to actually plan to participate in the contest. Since Sharon was in Florida visiting her mother (and since the boys are more than self-sufficient, that is, when they're actually home), I figured that I'd spend a good portion of the weekend contesting, probably racking up a decent score (compared to prior efforts; as regular readers know, I "play" in contests for the fun of it) and hopefully catching some new band/country fills. (By way of explanation, one of the things I like to do is not only to try to contact as many countries as I can, but to contact as many countries on as many different bands as I can. Contacting a country on a new band slot is often referred to as a "fill").

I got home from work at around 7:30 PM or so (which, unfortunately, has been the norm lately), ate dinner, and headed down to the shack. I turned on the computer and the radio, re-configured the radio to use the headset instead of the boom mike, fired up the N1MM contest logger, grabbed some spots from the cluster, and ...

Ugh. Ok, I know that we're in the bottom part of the solar cycle, but this was ridiculous. By the time I started, it was a little late for 20m to really be open, but I figured that I could at least work some stations in South America pretty quickly. Hah. In about 30 minutes, I managed to slug my way through seven, count 'em, seven stations. Even for my puny station, that was just plain awful. In the past in DX contests, especially early in the contest, I've had to compete with the high-powered stations, making it difficult for me, but what I heard on Friday night were these stations just CQing over and over, with nobody answering. Well, I was answering, but they just couldn't hear me. Every station I worked was a challenge, and while I wasn't quite ready to totally throw in the towel, after about 2 hours, when I'd only worked 25 stations (moving first to 40m then 80m), I gave up for the night. Every contact was like pulling teeth, with me having to give my call repeatedly.

One thing that I did have to do over the weekend was to get up early (for me) on Saturday morning and take Brett to school for his SATs. When I got home at about 7:45AM, I figured that maybe I'd see if I could make a few contacts instead of going back to bed (as I'd originally intended). I shouldn't have wasted my time. I think it took me about 20 minutes to find one station that I could work (TI50DX, on 40m), and after that, I just couldn't work anything. I finally gave up and went back to bed.

When I came back down to the shack again at around 11AM, I wasn't expecting much, and I certainly wasn't disappointed. I spent most of the rest of the day in front of the radio (though I certainly took time out to eat and take care of a few other errands), took a break to watch some TV, then finally came back to work a handful of stations on 75m between around 1AM and 2AM (local). My "rate" for the day came out to be around 12 stations an hour, which was just horrible. I think if I'd had almost anything else to do (well, I probably had something to do, but it was even less appealing) I wouldn't have spent time in front of the radio, but I did.

Sunday morning I slept in, assuming that nothing had changed on the bands (and, admittedly, because it was Sunday and I pretty much always sleep in on Sunday), and got ready to go pick Sharon up from the airport. I figured that I get on the radio for about 1/2 hour before leaving, and what a change there was in the bands. In the 25 minutes that I had until I left, I worked 23 stations, which is about as fast as I'm ever going to work stations in a major contest. Now that was fun!

Of course, by the time I got back, the opening was pretty much finished, and all that was left was some stations in western Europe and more South American and the Caribbean. It was back to the slow going again, though I did stick it out to the end.

Despite my grumbling, I did beat my score from last year, winding up at just below 80,000 points, and getting 54 multipliers on 20m. (If you're interested in the rest of the breakdown, you can find it on the 3830 reflector archive.)

For my little station, and especially at this time in the solar cycle, I guess I should be happy: I beat my score from last year, and I got to spend pretty much as much time playing radio as I wanted to. And eventually, in retrospect, I had fun.