Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The 2008 ARRL VHF QSO Party - Part III

In case you haven't read them already, you might want to check out Parts I and II of this series of posts. Incidentally, if you receive this post via email or from a website other than my actual blog website (such as www.planetham.org), you may not be able to see the videos in the previous posts. You can access them by visiting my blog website directly.

As I mentioned previously, the problem with the generator appeared to have been resolved, but there were a couple of other issues to deal with. I wasn't up at the site when this all took place, but K2KIB, who for years has been a strong contender during VHF contests in our area, had also received a permit to use the parking lot at High Point. (I should explain that although as a New Jersey State Park High Point is open to the public, overnight camping requires special arrangements to be made in advance.) For some reason, when he first set up his station, he'd parked his van away from the N2SE crew, but before actually operating, he moved his van and parked right next to Mike's truck, as you can see in the second video clip in the previous post. He was asked to move, but replied that he "couldn't" (no real explanation), and stayed right there. I don't really understand why he did that, since the interference that resulted impacted both stations. The parking lot was empty, and he easily could have parked elsewhere, but chose not to. I just have to wonder about some people.

The other issue was that although we had power, we still didn't have a workable laptop to use for the 6m station. Worse, we didn't know if the log was damaged. If we couldn't immediately recover the log, we'd be able to operate on 6m, but we'd probably have to stick strictly to CQing and hope that the stations who called us had their logs intact and didn't make a duplicate contact with us. Initially, it looked like we'd have to do that, and probably use log by hand on paper. Fortunately, I'd grabbed my laptop bag on the way out of the house in the morning as I was leaving to drive up to High Point. In my laptop are some software tools that I use when doing network and other troubleshooting. One of these tools was what's known as a
Linux Live CD, which is a CD-ROM that you can use to boot a computer right into Linux without having to install anything to the hard drive. By using this, I was able to boot into a copy of Linux and access the data on the hard drive. Fortunately, it appeared that the log was intact, and we were able to copy the log onto a USB thumb drive to preserve it. As it turned out, Matthew had brought a spare laptop with him, and they were able to move the logs onto that computer and use it for logging for the rest of the contest.

Because the park is not normally open at night, and because I wasn't planning on staying overnight, it was necessary for me to get going, since they close the park gates at around 8PM. The ride home was uneventful, and while I'd intended to do a little 6m contesting myself that evening, there were strong thunderstorms in the area and I left the antennas disconnected and just relaxed a bit.

It turns out that the band conditions were much better on the second day of the contest, with a very good opening on Sunday morning. The N2SE guys took advantage of that and did quite well with some very significant runs during the opening. I operated a little bit from home that day, only making 76 contacts in 36 different grids. I knew that I wasn't going to make a serious effort given that I wasn't on the air at all (as K2DBK, that is) on the first day of the contest, so I just operated casually for about 4 1/2 hours all told over the course of the day. (It was Father's Day, so in addition to the kids making me brunch, we had dinner with my Dad at his place, so I didn't have all that much time.) I didn't even bother to set up to work 2m and 70cm this time as I usually do, so my total was lower, but I didn't really mind since I enjoyed the contacts I did make.

For those of you who might want to check out the other short videos that I took while up at High Point, you can click here to view the YouTube Playlist that I created. I also have a few still pictures as well that I've posted on Picasa that you can take a look at.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The 2008 ARRL VHF QSO Party - Part II

In case you haven't read it already, you might want to check out Part I of this series of posts. Incidentally, if you receive this post via email or from a website other than my actual blog website, you may not be able to see the videos in this post or in the previous post. You can access them by visiting my blog website directly.

So there I was, back at the microphone at the 6m station for N2SE after taking a break for a while. The band was not in very good shape, though I seem to recall that at the time, I had the antenna pointed towards New England and was slowly but steadily making contacts. All of a sudden, the radio went dead. Worse, the laptop we were using for logging went dead. One of the advantages to using a laptop for logging, rather than a desktop computer, is that usually the battery in a laptop will keep the computer running should the power go out. However, for some reason, the battery in this laptop decided that it just plain didn't feel like working, so the laptop shut down. More about that later. The first order of business was to figure out what happened to the power. Peter, K1VDH went out to the generator and found that it had stopped, so he restarted it -- and then it stopped again. After checking for obvious problems (yes, there was gas, and in fact it had been filled less than an hour earlier), we realized that this probably wasn't going to be a quick fix. In the video here, you can see Peter, K1VDH and Mike, W2MLS (who owned the generator), trying to figure out what the problem was.

In the meantime, Matthew, K2NUD, who had organized the club effort, pulled an extension cord from the other generator into the pop-up camper where the 2m and 6m stations were located. That generator didn't have enough power to run everything in the camper (including the air conditioning) but it was enough to power the two radios and laptops. We figured that we could get back on the air on the smaller generator and operate while the other guys worked on the generator. Now that we had power again, all we had to do was the fire up the laptop and radio and get back on the air. Well, that was the plan.

For some reason, there was a problem with the license on the laptop and it failed to realize that it had been activated. (The laptop was running Windows Vista, and there have been some issues with the license activation being a little on the flakey side.) Matthew, K2NUD, and Rocky, KC2HRG, both worked for quite a while trying to get the laptop to behave itself without success. I should note that both Matthew and Rocky deal with this kind of thing as part of their "day jobs" routinely, but sometimes technology just does not want to cooperate. At this point, while Mike and Peter kept working on the generator, Rocky kept working on the laptop, and I did the only sensible thing left: I went to work at the barbecue. Matthew had brought up sirloin burgers and homemade hot dogs from a local butcher, and asked me to do the honors on the grill. (In Matthew's words: "A man has to know his limitations. I can't grill.")

After a break for dinner, it appeared that the big generator was once again up and running, the apparent problem being that something was rubbing on the clutch and was causing enough friction that the generator shut itself down to protect itself from damage. Peter used a little good old fashioned Yankee know-how and wedged a branch under the generator to make the rubbing (apparently) stop, and sure enough the generator once again seemed fine. Well, we thought it was fine. It turned out that the actual problem was that the gas cap was failing to allow air into the tank so after running for a while, a vacuum was created in the gas tank that was enough to keep the gas from flowing. The simple solution was to just loosen the gas tank cap a bunch. Problem solved.

Stay tuned for Part III.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The 2008 ARRL VHF QSO Party - Part I

This past weekend was the 2008 ARRL VHF QSO Party. (I don't know why it's called a QSO Party, it's a contest.) This is one of my favorite contests, since while I am far from a "big gun" station, I can still do decently for what I'm using, which makes it fun. When I can, I like to work at least some time on both days of the contest, since band conditions can (and do) change significantly between the two days of that contest. (Of course, since the "main" band for this contest is 6 meters, the conditions can change on a minute by minute basis too, but there are often significant variations between the two days.)

This year, I did things a bit differently. On the first day, I went to High Point State Park in Sussex, NJ, to operate with a group from my club, the 10-70 Repeater Association as N2SE. They've been
going up there for the past few years, and this is the first time that I had a chance to get up there with them. They do a very nice configuration, and this year they had a van set up for the 432Mhz and the 1.296 Ghz bands, and a really nice pop-up camper (courtesy of W2MLS) for 6m and 2m. The 5500 watt generator (just for the pop-up; the van had it's own 2000w generator) provided not only enough electricity for the radios and computers, but also enough to keep the air conditioner going! Hey, you might as well be comfortable. If you click on the picture you'll be taken to my photo gallery from the trip which has some descriptions of what was up there.

I got to spend some time operating on 6m. My first shift (we didn't have organized shifts, we just operated) was right at the beginning of the contest, and I was lucky enough to be able to grab a frequency right at the start of the contest and start calling CQ. For those not familiar with why this is A Good Thing, there are
basically two ways to make contacts in a contest. The way that I usually wind up doing it for many contests is called "Search and Pounce" (or S&P for short). What you do is to tune up and down the band, find someone calling CQ, and calling them. In many contests, this is pretty much the only way that a small station (like mine at home) can make contacts, since it can be tough to "hold" a frequency in a highly contested contest when there are lots of strong stations on the air. This brings me to the better way to make contacts in a contest, which is to call CQ and "run" stations.

It should be pretty obvious that if some stations are S&P'ing, others have to be sitting in one place calling CQ. Stations who make one contact right after another, with a minimal delay between the contacts are said to be "running" stations. This is what you want to to do in a contest, because it allows you to make contacts much more quickly. The speed with which you make contacts is called your "rate", and the higher your rate, generally speaking, the higher your score in a contest. So, back to how I started off during the contest.

As I said, I was lucky enough to be able to hold onto a frequency at the beginning of the contest. I started calling CQ, and very soon after the contest started, one station after another answered my call. According to the computer log, at one point, I was actually running stations at the rate of about 150 per hour, although that was for a relatively short period of time. I worked stations for around 90 minutes and had around 65 or so contacts in the log before turning the microphone over to Bob, N2SU, for a while. From what I've read, that kind of rate is excellent for a VHF contest, especially when there is no enhanced propagation. Basically, it means that most of the contacts aren't being made by bouncing signals off of the E or F layers of the atmosphere, but rather are made by "ground wave", which is sort of line of sight. (I say sort of because it's a lot more complex than that, and many of the stations contacted certainly aren't line of sight; I've contacted stations in Maine from home on ground wave signals and I don't think I can "see" Maine from here.) That's me CQing in the video above, which, as luck would have it, was shot right at one of the first lulls. Most of what you hear is Tim, KA2A, making a contact on 2m at the station just behind where the video was taken.

I had a great time operating, and after a break, I operated for around another hour later in the afternoon ... until the generator died.

Stay tuned for part II.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Getting the word out for your DXpedition

Last September, I posted a summary with some tips about how to operate from Grand Cayman (ZF). Part of that post gave a list of contacts that I found were useful to "get the word out". The list was by no means complete, but I did discover that by contacting just that list, news of my trip made it out to all the major DX-related lists and sites, and even a bunch that I'd never hard of before.

Recently, Scot, K9JY, and I were discussing the idea of a "press kit" for DXpeditions in response to a post in his blog, and Scot encouraged me to post my list. I'd forgotten that I'd actually had it posted here on my blog, but I've gone ahead and made a permanent page on my non-blog website at k2dbk.com. The direct link to the "press kit" page is http://www.k2dbk.com/dx-publicity.html.

As I mentioned, this is by no means a complete list of all possible contacts, and I'm sure that there are some important contacts that I've left out. If you are one of those sources, please be assured that it's simply due to my not realizing that you are out there.

Eventually, I'd like to grow that page to include more than just DX list contacts, but I think what I've got is a good starting point. If you've got any additions, corrections or deletions, please let me know either via email, a comment to this post or, perhaps, a contact on the air! (Hey, this is all about amateur radio, right?)

Friday, June 06, 2008

Survey says ...

I'm trying to get a little information about how folks actually read this blog. I know that I've got some folks who read via RSS, some who read it on the web, and others who access it through N0HR's Ham Radio toolbar, but it's difficult to tell exactly where folks are coming from.

If you've got a minute (it doesn't even take long), I'd appreciate it if you'd take the time to visit my blog on the web at http://k2dbk.blogspot.com and answer the simple survey that appears a little bit down on the right side. I'll keep it running until the end of this month. Thanks!

(By the way, some of you may be wondering about the origins of the phrase that makes up the title of this post, particular if you're not located in the United States. The Wikipedia article about "Family Feud" explains it all!)