Sunday, March 29, 2009

Catching up, take 3

I seem to have falling into one of those “I really should post something soon … maybe tomorrow” ruts again, and as a result, have gotten a bit behind. I haven’t been on the radio all that much, but I did do a few things of note.

Last weekend was the Virginia QSO party. The band conditions weren’t very good, but I did manage to make 162 contacts in 68 different counties or Independent Cities (something that i think is unique to Virginia) for a total claimed score of 15,232 points. Not my best effort (I had 195 contacts last year), but I think that I did pretty well considering the time spent and considering the band conditions. I had a lot of fun during the last hour or so of the contest because I was able to hold onto a pretty clear “run” frequency on 75 meters and worked about 25 or 30 station over about 40 minutes. I’ve discussed this before, but by way of explanation, in most contests, you either “search & pounce”  (S&P) or “run”. Most stations spend their time doing S&P because there are usually far more stations in a contest than there are available frequencies. When you’re running a relatively low-powered station it’s easier just to tune up  and down the bands and contact the stations that are “running”. Running means that you stay on a single frequency and work the S&P folks as they come to you. In most cases, it’s best to be running, since if you’ve got a clear frequency and a decent signal, you can just sit there and work station after station pretty much as fast as you can make the contacts. When you S&P, you often have to wait for other stations (who are trying to contact a “run” station), and it’s usually a lot slower. Getting a decent run frequency can be pretty difficult, and I think I just got lucky. I can say that it’s way more fun to run than to S&P.

The only other interesting thing was that I managed to work the Lord Howe Island Dxpedition (VK9LA) on Sunday afternoon. Lord Howe Island is fairly rare, and is a new DXCC entity for me, so I was very pleased to work them. I’ve tried a couple of mornings at around 8AM local time (1200Z)  to work them on 30m, but wasn’t having much luck. I was home Sunday afternoon doing some paperwork (tax time!) and intermittently looking at the cluster spots to see if VK9LA was showing up. At around 2000Z, I started to hear them on 20m, and based on information from the spots on the cluster plus propagation predictions from W6ELProp it looked like the path to the VK9LA guys was long path. Long path means that the signals are taking the path that’s 180 degrees opposite the shortest path around the globe to a station. Short path to LHI is about 9450 miles (15200km), and long path is 15,400 miles (24800km). It’s likely that I’ve worked stations long-path in that part of the world before, but I certainly haven’t done so recently with the band conditions so terrible. I tried to work them for a while, but just wasn’t having any success, so I took a break for a short while (jumped on the exercise bike) and came back to the radio a bit before 2100Z and after about 15 minutes I managed to work them.

Friday, March 13, 2009


I discovered something today about International Reply Coupons, or IRCs that has an interesting tie-in with one of the big news stories of the day. First, some background about what an IRC is, and why they are of interest to hams.

Although electronic systems such as the ARRL’s Logbook of The World and provide a computerized way for hams to confirm contacts with each other (a contact is known as a QSO, a confirmation of that contact is a QSL), many of us still enjoy receiving a physical memento of the contact in the form of a QSL Card. Most hams have their own QSL card, which can vary from a “stock” card with the only customization being the unique callsign assigned to that ham all the way to multi-part tri-fold full-color cards. Often hams will use different QSL cards when operating from different locations, which I do when I operate from various places other than my home location. When requesting a QSL card from someone, it’s considered courteous to supply return postage, particularly if the station contacted is particularly rare or is likely to have to send out a lot of QSL cards for any reason. (There are plenty of exceptions to this, and while personally I appreciate it when someone includes return postage when requesting a card from me, I don’t usually don’t care that much if they don’t since I don’t send out that many cards that it’s a problem.)

If you’re sending a card to someone in the same country (in my case, in the US), the return postage is usually in the form of a Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope (or SASE). It gets more difficult when crossing country borders. A US stamp simply isn’t valid on an envelope coming back to me from any other country, so the options are to buy foreign stamps or to include some way for the other station to purchase the stamps in their country. I’m not going to go into all the pros and cons of the various methods (I’ll save that for another time), but it turns out that the International Postal Union (IPU) recognized this as as problem a very long time ago.

The issue originally came up unrelated to ham radio, where businesses wanted to be able to get a mail reply from someone in a foreign country. What they came up with is something called an International Reply Coupon (IRC). An IRC can be purchased from a post office in a country that’s a member of the IPU (which is most countries) for some set price, which varies by country. It can be exchanged in any other country for postage sufficient to send a letter via airmail. The price of IRCs varies from country to country, and the costs are also relative to world currency values. In some countries, it’s fairly inexpensive to purchase an IRC, while in others, it’s quite expensive. The cost for an IRC also doesn’t necessarily match the price of an airmail stamp in the country. For example, at the present time, the cost to buy an IRC from the US Postal Service is $2.10, but an airmail stamp is currently $0.94, so there’s quite a premium.

It turns out that it’s perfectly legal to purchase an IRC in a country where they are relatively cheap and to turn them in for stamps in a country where the value of the airmail postage is more than what was paid for the IRC in the first place. This is known as arbitrage and is commonly done in financial circles (though usually not specifically with IRCs). However, many hams simply use the IRCs they receive as their own form of currency, passing along a received IRC to someone else with the idea that they really just want to get that QSL card and aren’t trying to make money.

But there was someone who decided that this would be a fine way to make money quite a long time ago, and that’s where the tie-in to the news of the day begins. The person in question was Charles Ponzi, for whom the infamous Ponzi scheme was named. The articles that I’ve linked to here have a comprehensive explanation of what he did, but in a nutshell, Ponzi started off by buying relatively inexpensive IRCs in Italy and turning them in for stamps in the US, making a very significant profit. This was all legal, until he decided that he could make far more money by simply getting investors to give him cash to (in theory) buy more IRCs which would produce huge profits for the investors after the IRCs were sold. The problem is that Ponzi never actually bought or sold the IRCs, and managed to convince his investors to leave their profits with him. He told them they were making lots of money, while in reality the only one who really made money (aside from a few of his very early investors; read the articles to understand why) was Ponzi himself.

This brings us to a courtroom in New York City on the 12th of March, 2009, where Bernard Madoff pled guilty to running what will almost certainly turn out to be one of the biggest Ponzi schemes of all time, costing investors at least $50 billion.

And that’s how we get a rather convoluted link between one of the biggest swindlers of all time and ham radio.