Encourage Hams to “Get On CW”

On our club e-mail list, we’ve been doing a post-mortem on our Field Day operations. One of the cooler things was our “Get On The Air” (GOTA) station. At the GOTA station, a dozen different people made their first HF contacts, including a number of Technicians. It has spurred several of them to start working on their code so that they can upgrade to General.

Another thing that we noted is that while we made many more contacts this year, we scored just a few more points than last year. The reason, of course, is that all those extra contacts were SSB contacts, not CW contacts. We ran two phone stations, but only one CW station.

Next year, I’m proposing that we go to 4A and run two CW stations. I’m going to call the second CW station the “Get On CW” (GOCW) station. At this station, we’re not going to care how fast someone operates or how many contacts he or she makes. Instead, the idea is to show them how much fun it can be to work CW. I plan to be around as much as possible to demonstrate CW, coach those that want to operate, and help them make contacts (by logging for them and helping them copy the fast stations).

In addition, I’m going to talk to the guys in the club who keep talking about working CW, but never seem to find the time or the energy to do so and encourage them strongly (i.e. twist arms, if necessary) to operate for an hour or two. The idea being to get them over the hump as far as CW goes. I might even give out awards to the operator who made the most contacts, the operator who showed the most courage in sitting down and operating, etc.

I’d like to see this become a nation-wide FISTS effort. The GOCW stations could even congregate around the Fists frequencies–or designate some other frequencies around which to find one another–so that we can work one another without having to deal with the contest twits who are rude to slower operators.

You can participate in the Get On CW effort even if your Field Day operations don’t allow for a separate station. My suggestion would be to designate some time period at one of your stations for GOCW operation. If you do this, realize that you’re going to have to steal some prime time from the “real contesters,” though. You’re not going to have a successful effort if you schedule the GOCW operation from 2 am to 4 am Sunday morning.

Let me know what you think of this idea, and please e-mail me if you plan on participating. Also e-mail me if you have an idea of how to make the GOCW effort more effective.

Spiders!

For some reason, my shack here in the basement is being overrun by spiders–from very tiny ones up to Daddy Long Legs spiders. I guess I have to get the mop out and sweep up some of the spider webs.

Be Careful With Old Dummy Loads

A ham friend recently sent me the following e-mail:

> I have an old MFJ oil-filled dummy load. I wondered how to dispose of the
> transformer oil, which MFJ says does NOT contain any PCBs. So I did some
> research and found the following info regarding PCBs on military bases in
> Japan.
>
> “…under the current rules for Japan, military officials say, anything
> tested for PCBs is assumed to be contaminated, even if the test equipment
> cannot detect any PCBs.”
>
> So I guess you’re better off just to say, “Nope, it doesn’t contain any
> PCBs, so we won’t bother to test it.”
>
> MFJ told me the oil is not hazardous and can be disposed as “trash.” I
> think I’ll check with my recycle center just the same.

I replied:

Back in the 70s, I bought a Heathkit Cantenna dummy load kit. You may remember these things. Basically, they were just a paint can into which you dunked a non-inductive resistor. What you were supposed to fill the can with was “transformer oil.”

My father somehow procured a two- or three-gallon can of the stuff, which I’m now guessing had PCBs in it. Of course, we didn’t think about these things then, and the Cantenna was far from hermetically sealed. In fact, it had a pressure relief valve on the top that leaked, so there was always a film of transformer oil on top of the Cantenna.

Also, since the Cantenna only required one gallon of transformer oil, the rest of the oil sat in my father’s garage for who knows how many years. I have no idea of how he disposed of it, either. In retrospect, I still feel a little guilty about this.

About 20 years ago–maybe more, actually–I purchased a Drake 300W dummy load. The resistive element looks remarkably similar to the one in the Cantenna. The resistor in the Drake dummy load is inside a perforated metal enclosure and is air-cooled. This leads me to believe that I probably could have done without the transformer oil altogether back in the 70s. I never used a linear amplifier, and therefore probably never got up to the power levels where the cooling oil was needed.

Balloon-borne telecommunications test

From the July 21, 2004 issue of the IEEE Tech Alert E-Mail Newsletter:

This month, a 3000-meter-high antenna will rise over Atlanta, but area residents might not notice. The antenna won’t be a metal rod at the end of a hulking tower, but a solar-powered, helium-and-nitrogen-filled airship that will receive signals from nearby ground stations and rebroadcast them over the Atlanta metropolitan area. The test transmission of voice, data, and video in many standard forms will be part of a demonstration planned by a local company, Sanswire Networks LLC, to show that high-altitude platforms –or HAPs as they are known in the telecommunications world — can work as mid-air base stations for wireless communications.

Sanswire is just one of many companies around the world that think HAPs can overcome the limitations of both satellites and terrestrial towers. But first these companies will have to prove their airworthiness to national airspace regulators, such as the Federal Aviation Administration.

See “An Eye in the Sky,” by Willie D. Jones.

Think of the coverage your repeater would have if it was riding on one of these babies!

So, What’s the Deal With the Icom IC-746PRO?

I really want an IC-746PRO. AES recently dropped the price of this radio to $1300, and for that price, I think it’s the best deal on the market.

At least it would be if not for that nagging IC151 problem.

There actually seems to be two problems with IC151. Both cause the rig to quit transmitting.

The first problem seems to be a thermal problem. Some IC-746PRO owners say that IC151 gets hot, causing it to fail prematurely. If you read the IC-746PRO reviews on eHam, it looks as though quite a high percentage of the units fail, and many fail more than once.

What’s even more confusing, or dismaying, is that the IC-756PRO uses this same IC in the same application, but IC-756PRO owners don’t report anywhere near the number of failures that owners of the IC-746PRO do. Many hams point to the difference in the two circuits. OZ2M, an electrical engineer by training with five years of experience with Motorola as a Senior RF Design Engineer, points out on his IC-746PRO web page that in the IC-756PRO, the VCC line is switched on and off, with the IC only being powered when the rig is transmitting. This will, of course, keep the part much cooler. OZ2M also shows on this page various heatsinks that some hams have designed and installed in attempts to keep the chip cooler.

K5LXP also experimented with heatsinks, but he took his fix a step further. In addition to adding a heatsink to IC151, he also found a way to switch the VCC to the chip. What he did was find an 8 VDC line that was switched on only during transmit and used that to power IC151. He suggests that perhaps you don’t need the heatsink with the VCC fix, as this modified circuit is similar to the circuit in the IC-756PRO, which does not seem to have an IC151 problem.

The second problem is an ESD problem, and Icom claims that if there is a problem it is an ESD problem, not a thermal problem. The Icom America website has a page titled, IC-746PRO – IC-151 Protection Diode Fix states,

There are rumors on the Internet that the circuit around IC-151 is incorrectly designed causing overheating of this part and that the protection diode fix is an attempt to mislead customers by ICOM. Nothing could be further from the truth. Measurements show that the surface temperature of IC-151 is low, even after 4 hours of continuous operation. Our service technicians do not see any discoloration of the circuit board or the deformation of parts that are the symptoms of overheating. As stated above, protection diodes have been shown to resolve the issue and no heating calculations are needed. ICOM America service records show that the failure rate of this part has been reduced to 1/10th of the previous value.

Note that they don’t say that the fix eliminates the problem completely. It is OZ2M’s opinion that the fix may indeed prevent some units from failing, but that the fix does nothing to prevent thermal failures.

It also appears that there’s more to this ESD problem than meets the eye. As one message to the IC-746PRO mailling list mentions, Burghardt Amateur Center is preparing a more comprehensive ESD fix. The message quotes someone at Burghardt, who says,

“Most of the cases when we see IC151 bad is due to static discharge. Not only will IC151 of the RF unit be bad but also D21,D22,D24, and Q25 of the Tuner control unit. Theses other components will cause the receiver to be noisy. Changing the supply line to IC151 will have no effect on this since the surge is coming down the receiver line and damaging the outputs in IC151. This will occur whether the IC151 is powered or not. There are a lot of misconceptions out there about what is the main cause of this failure. We are currently in the process of having a surge suppression board built for the IC-746,746PRO,756,756PRO, and 756PROII. It is installed on the tuner control board and will help protect all receiver components from static and excessive RF fields. It will be available 8/1/04 and sells for $69.95. If you have any questions please E-mail me at kaØjdn@d… or call 605-886-7314 and ask for David.”

All this is very troubling for me. I’d really like to buy this radio, but I’m afraid it will be just one hassle after another if I do. It’s especially troubling because I really like my IC-735, and have never had any trouble with it in the almost 20 years that I’ve owned it.

I swapped a few e-mails with K5LXP about this, and he was very kind to give me his take on the situation. He noted that hams have a long tradition of modifying gear, and while modern rigs are certainly more complicated than the older stuff, these modifications are not impossible to do. He also reminded me that at $1300, the IC-746PRO is a really great deal, and the cost of the modifications is very small.

In the end, I have the feeling that I’m going to bite the bullet and buy the IC-746PRO. Current production units already have the ESD protection diodes installed, and if IC151 does fail, I’ll apply K5LXP’s VCC fix.I really want an IC-746PRO. AES recently dropped the price of this radio to $1300, and for that price, I think it’s the best deal on the market.

Spam for Hams

I get so much spam that it’s getting ridiculous. Most are a complete waste of time, but I just got one that I found amusing. Not so much for the message, but for the fact that it was address to me at kb6nu@arrl.net and to six other hams with an arrl.net e-mail address. The message was titled, “Nature’s Love Scent,” and had the following message:

Secretly Attract Women or Men
Ever wonder why some people are always surrounded by people Who Admire Them? Join the popular ones at [[URL of Nature's Love Scent website.]]

Now, I know amateur radio operators are not known for being especially attractive (especially after 24 hours of Field Day), but honestly, how did they come to single out hams for this spam? I went to QRZ.COM and actually looked up each of the other hams to whom this message was sent. Unfortunately, none of them had a picture posted, so I couldn’t tell if they used that as a criterion for sending them this email. At any rate, I’m doing OK using my own scent, thanks.

Yet another episode in my search for toroid cores

For Field Day, a friend and I made couple of C-Pole antennas as described in the April 2004 issue of QST. One disadvantage of this antenna is that it requires a balun to operate properly. We decided to make these baluns, but finding the toroid cores was a real hassle. We got lucky, though. I found one at a local radio shop, and my friend just happened to have one in his junk box.

The antennas worked pretty well, and now I want to make a few more, meaning that I need to find more of these cores. The other day, I got the bright idea to check the Mouser website to see if they stock them. Well, they list a bunch of Fair-Rite toroid cores online, but they don’t seem to actually stock any.

I then surf over to the the Fair-Rite website. I request their catalog online and it arrives a couple days by UPS even though I note that I’m just an amateur radio operator. It’s a very cool catalog, except that I can’t figure out how to find an equivalent Fair-Rite part for the Amidon FT-240-61. Specifically, I can’t figure out what material each of the toroids is made out of.

So, I call them this morning, and ask for an applications engineer. I get a very cheery guy, who when I explain my problem, just chuckles. “Yes,” he says, “that’s one problem with our catalog.” Then, he goes on to explain how the material number is actually the third and fourth digits of the part number.

When I say to him that I am trying to figure out what Fair Rite part is equivalent to an Amidon FT-240-61, he chuckles again. He says that Amidon actually buys these parts from Fair Rite and puts their part number on them. When all is said and done, I figure out that the Fair Rite part number for the Amidon FT-240-61 is 5961003801.

So, I go back to the Mouser website. They list this part, but of course, they don’t have any in stock. They will order it for you, but you have to order 100 of them at $5.52 each. Deciding that I don’t want to spend $552, I decide to look elsewhere.

I type “5961003801″ into Google and get back only five responses, one of them being the Fair Rite website. This doesn’t look promising, but I click on the link to www.hobid.com. Apparently, this is a site that brokers surplus electronics components. They do list the 5961003801, and note that sellers registered with HOBid.Com have 5,532 of them somewhere. I typed in a request for 20 of them with a target price of $3 each.

An hour later, I get a reply from a company named United General Computer Inc. They offer to sell me the parts for $9.34 each. That’s a reasonable price for new parts, but the impression I get is that these are surplus, so I’m inclined not to buy them. It’s now 4 pm and I haven’t received any other offers, so maybe this company is the only one that had any. We’ll see.

Getting People Into Ham Radio (and then keeping them here)

At Field Day, Bruce W8BBS came to visit. Bruce is the author of the Amateur Radio No-Code Technician License Examination Study Guide and Workbook. Bruce publishes and distributes this study guide via his website free of charge.

Bruce wastes no time with this study guide. In just 14 short pages, he very succinctly tells you all you need to know to pass the Technician Class license test. (The entire study guide is 34 pages, the last 20 pages being sample tests.)

I really have mixed feelings about this manual. On the one hand, Bruce has done a great job of boiling down all the information that people need to know to get their Tech licenses. He claims a very high success rate, and I have no reason to doubt him.

On the other hand, I think it’s very doubtful that by reading just 14 pages that anyone will have a really good understanding of the material. So, while the guide will help folks get their Tech licenses, it’s not really teaching them what they need to know to be successful amateur radio operators.

It can, of course, be argued that the ARRL manual, Now You’re Talking doesn’t do much better. The book does blow through much of the theory, but that’s because there just isn’t that much theory required for the Technician test. It is, after all, the entry level license, and making it too difficult could dissuade people from taking that first step. The problem is that too many amateurs get stuck at the Tech level, and never get a taste of HF operation, which, if you ask me, is the heart and soul of amateur radio.

So, the question becomes, how do you encourage Technicians to upgrade? One way is to sponsor General Class license classes. Last winter, I taught just such a class, and tried to not only teach the material, but also give my students a taste of what you can do at the HF frequencies and how to do it.

Another way is to push the “Get on the Air” (GOTA) station at Field Day. At this year’s Field Day, we had ten different people make contacts at the GOTA station. One guy, who’s currently a Tech, was at first very reluctant to sit down and operate the radio. After much goading, we finally got him to do it, and all in all he made about a dozen contacts. We had a hard time pulling him away from the radio after that. I think that experience has given him the push he needs to more vigorously pursue getting his General ticket.

The point is that it’s all well and good to make it easy for people to get a license and start getting their feet wet. BUT, once they have their licenses, let’s not abandon them. We must continue to expose them to new things and to encourage them to progress to the General Class license and the Extra Class license. That’s the only way they’ll get real satisfaction out of amateur radio.

Lime Green?

Well, our club has just completed the second of two public service events in a week. The first was the Ann Arbor Fourth of July Parade. The second was a bike tour sponsored by the Ann Arbor Bicycle Touring Society.

The two events were quite different from each other. The first event took place over a small area, perhaps less than a square mile. The second, on the other hand, covered hundreds of square miles. Quite an interesting contrast.

I think public service events are important for a couple of reasons:

  1. it is one of the reasons that amateur radio exists at all, and
  2. it is good public relations.

That’s why I’m so glad that someone stepped up to replace our public service officer when he had to step down for family reasons. Thanks to Staci Andre KC8WYA.

I’m also heartened that we had so many people show up for these events. Last week, seven of us showed up for the parade, and today, there were eleven of us providing communications for the bike tour. This was the best turnout we’ve had in a long time, including:

  • Clark N8CBW
  • Mark W8FSA
  • Tim KT8K<\li>
  • Glenda N8KPL
  • Jim N8LIC
  • Lee KF8MO
  • Dan KB6NU
  • Pat N8PJR
  • Jeff W8SGZ
  • Steve WB8WSF
  • Staci KC8WYA

The only beef I have is that both of these events gave out lime-green t-shirts to volunteers. I know I don’t look good in lime green, and come to think of it, I’m not sure I know anyone who looks good in that color. Maybe I can get our public service officer to do something about that.

Back to the “Original” Internet

I’ve been having a lot of trouble with my DSL Internet connection for a week now. Last Thursday, July 1, it quit on me around 11:15, and I didn’t get back online until 9 pm. In the meantime, I had called SBC and they scheduled a technician to come out and check the line, but when he arrived Friday morning, the line was working, so he had nothing to check. Then, the line went down again around 11:30 Friday morning.

I called again, and they sent out a technician again Saturday morning, but the line had come back Friday evening, so all the guy could do is check signal levels (which were great) and then leave again. Wouldn’t you know it, the line died again that afternoon. This time, I was without service until Tuesday morning (the people doing line maintenace were off Monday for the July 4th holiday), when they connected my wires to another port.

Needless to say, this has all been very frustrating, especially as I make my living via my Internet connection. To make matters even worse, SBC has offshored their tech support, so every time you call them you get someone from the Phillipines on the line. These folks have been poorly trained and insist on going through some silly diagnostics each time you call them. This is especially frustrating as I’ve had this service for more than four years now. They’ve even wanted me to reload the software!

This morning, a week after I reported the trouble, the line is down again. It went down right in the middle of doing some work on a website. When I called the service center, I was told that there doing a “port check.” I asked why they didn’t call me first, and all I got was silence. So now it’s about an hour later, and it’s still down.

So, instead I got onto the “original Internet” — ham radio. I had a great QSO with Stu, W9JVC. At least ham radio still works.

Which really brings me to another point. What’s going to happen when the Internet really goes down? I really do think hams should be working on a radio-based packet network to allow us to communicate in times of emergency. Here in Michigan, the QMN Net started building such a network here in Michigan, but the project’s been stalled for some reason. It’s a shame as this could be really necessary some day.

Update 7/9/04: My DSL line came back up Thursday afternoon at 4:30, but that only lasted until 7:30, at which time a technician came out to troubleshoot the line. It never did come back up yesterday night, but the guy thought he found the problem. This morning, yet another technician came out to correct the wiring error. It’s now approximately 2 pm, and so far so good.

In describing this series of events to a friend this morning, it occurred to me that over the course of eight days, I probably spent more than 8 hours talking to more than 25 different SBC personnel about this problem. Amazing, isn’t it?