The Weekend in Ham Radio at KB6NU – Feb. 26-27, 2005

On Saturday, I didn’t make a single contact–at least not any radio contacts. I had plenty of face-to-face contacts at the ARROW monthly breakfast, including a nice chat about getting back on the air and working CW with a guy whose call I forget now (sorry about that!). He was telling me about a psychiatrist named Fred S. Keller who actually Certificate of Merit by President Truman for his work during WWII which led to improved methods for teaching the code. He’s a guy I never heard of before, and it would be interesting to know more about his findings.

Other activities–including a visit to the Michigan State Univ. Kresge Art Museum and installing Linux on a ‘new’ old computer–occupied my time for the rest of the day. Somehow, I simply couldn’t fit in a QSO.

Today was a different story, however. I finished up the Linux installation around 11:30 am, and ate lunch. I puttered around the office until about 1:00, when I decided to head down to the shack. After turning on the rig, I discovered that it the NC QSO Party was in full swing. I didn’t have much choice but to jump right in, especially considering that I was the highest scorer from the state of Michigan last year. I joke about this because while I was indeed the highest scorer from the state of Michigan, I accomplished this feet with seven contacts, scoring a grand total of 155 points.

This year, I was determined to do better. After downloading and installing N3FJP’s NCQP logging software, I got down to business. In the next two and half hours, I racked up about 2,500 points, working 27 different counties. About 60% of the Qs were on CW and the remaining 40% on phone. At that point, I stopped to make and eat dinner.

The bug had hold of me, though, and I couldn’t resist heading downstairs again after dinner. I spent another hour and a half or so, working another 13 counties (making it 40 out of 100), and pushing my point total to over 6,000. Not too shabby, I don’t think.

I also fit in a little DX while working the contest. I took a short break around 6:30 pm, switching to 30m to see what was happening there. I caught 8P9NX calling CQ and had a short QSO with him. Also, at one point, I was calling CQ NCQP de KB6NU/MI. I got calls from both F6EVN and CU2TJ, who were also trying to make NC contacts and misunderstood my call.

Finally, I checked into the Univ of Michigan ARC net at 8 pm. It’s spring break week at the U and some of the guys have said they’re going to use the time to improve their code speed, and they’re going to take me up on my offer to work with them. I have a sked tomorrow after the ARROW net to work KG6URI on 2m CW. It will be interesting to see how well my dual-band ground plane works on the lower portion of the band.

Make Club Meetings Interesting AND Useful

One of the things that has helped me in finding speakers for club meetings is my experience as an editor with Test&Measurement World magazine. My job as an editor was to first figure out what topics the readers were interested in (or should be interested in) and then find someone to write the article. My job as club president is to come up with ideas for club meetings and then find guys willing to giva a presentation.

Generating ideas is not all that hard. All you really have to do is think a little about what interests you or what would be useful to you and before long you’ll have more ideas than you could ever use. For example, the other day I was preparing a lesson for my General Class license course. The lesson was to cover antennas and feedlines, and I was cutting hunks of different feedlines to pass around at class.

At the same time, I was talking to our club’s technical coordinator on the repeater. I asked him if he knew how to determine the characteristic impedance of a feedline. For a second there, I had him stumped, but in the end, he came up with a reasonable answer.

The answer is that the characteristic impedance of a feedline is the impedance that a source would see if the line were infinitely long. Think about this. If you connected a power supply to a piece of coax or ladder line, a current will begin to flow. It will, however, flow for only a short period of time because sooner or later that current is going to reach the end of the line and have nowhere to go.

If, however, the feedline were infinitely long, the current would continue to flow. Determining the impedance of the line is then very simple. Z = V/I.

From a practical point of view, you can measure the characteristic impedance with a time-domain reflectometer or an oscilloscope and a pulse generator. For the test method, take a look at this article from Test&Measurement World. Putting together such a test setup, shouldn’t be difficult to do, and I bet that it would make a great presentation at a club meeting. I’d be willing to be that one or more of your members have an oscilloscope that you can use. Finding a signal generator with enough drive might be a problem, but not on insurmountable one.

Not only would the presentation be interesting, but it would be useful as well. You could invite members to bring in their coax and test them to see how close the feedlines are to their nominal impedances. Taking it a step further, you could then measure the feedlines with antenna analyzers and see how close the measurements turn out to be.

So, there you have it, a club meeting that’s both educational and useful.

A couple of other ideas that occur me in this same vein include:

  • Checking the calibration of members’ DMMs. To do this, you could build a voltage reference with a part like the MAX6126. The MAX6126 has an accuracy of + 0.02%, which should make it more than accurate enough to check most DMMs. Another option would be to purchase a voltage standard from Geller Labs. Their least expensive model is only $25.
  • Check the spurious emissions of members’ transceivers. To do this, you’ll need access to a spectrum analyzer. Fortunately our club does have one available. If yours doesn’t, you could perhaps borrow one from a local business or test equipment rental company.

A LID for 67 Years!

Last night, I had a great QSO with Don W2LID. Of course, we joked about his call, and I asked him how long he’d had it. As it turns out, he was issued the call in 1937 at the age of 15, so he’s been a LID for 67 years!

As I mentioned, it was a very nice QSO. Don is a real expert at how to conduct a QSO. One of the keys to a good QSO is to ask lots of questions. Practically before I could get a word in edgewise, he’d asked me about my work, why I had a 6 call in the 8 call district, and about the equipment I was running. Through his questioning, we found out that we had some common work experience, he working for Bell Labs, and me working for a competitor, Northern Telecom.

If anyone’s callsign can be a misnomer it’s W2LID. Don’s as far from being a lid as I can imagine.

What’s a Lid?
When we finally did get around to joking about his call, he also mentioned that many of the new operators that he works are often not familiar with the term. I think this happens quite a bit these days. For example, there’s a fellow in our club who refers to his wife as his “XYO.”

Of course, the reason for this is that nowadays the entry license is the Tech license, not the CW-only Novice license. I’m not complaining about this, really, but I think it’s probably a good idea to keep this in mind when talking with these fellows on the repeater or at club meetings and gently correct them on the use of terms. Maybe it’s because I’m a writer and editor, but I’ve come to be a real stickler for proper usage. Call me a prude, but I think when everyone uses the correct terms, and uses them correctly, then there’s less chance for miscommunication.

By the way, after our QSO, I fired up the 2m rig to check in to our club’s weekly net. One of the fellows knew what a lid was, but wanted to know the origin of the term. Having a PC handy, I did a quick Google search. The consensus is that term was first used in the days of wireless telegraphy. Apparently, some of the operators used the lid of a Prince Albert tobacco can to enhance the tone and volume of the mechanical sounder. This practice was frowned upon by the hotshot operators, who derisively referred to these guys as “lids.”

Another Casual DXer Tip

One of my first blog entries was “Tips for the Casual Dxer.” Now, I have another tip:

The night before a major DX contest, get on the air and work the stations warming up for the next day’s events.

I did this exact thing yesterday. Tuning around 15m, I worked in quick succession:

  • PY1NX, who was booming in with 20 dB over S9 signal;
  • PJ4/KU8E; and
  • V47Z, a new country for me.

I probably could have worked a bunch more, but I got a little tired of simply sending 599s. It was nice to work the new country, though.

Earning My Props

When guys in our club start to talk about A-indexes and K-indexes, I normally say that I don’t use either of those to predict propagation. When they’d ask what I do use, I reply, “I use the E-index.”

“What’s the E-index?” they ask.

“Well,” I joke, “E stands for ‘ear’ and if I can hear stations on a band then I figure that propagation is pretty good. If I don’t hear any stations, then it’s probably bad.” That usually get a chuckle out of them.

I may be changing my tune, however. This week, I covered propagation in the General Class license course. To cover it properly, I had to bone up on the topic myself. In the course of doing so, I found the topic to be much more interesting and useful than I would have thought, and there are quite a few resources on the Web that makes it easy to learn.

Here are a few websites to explore:

  • Collection of Propagation Information. As the name implies, this site collects data related to propagation and displays it on a single page. Included are various measurements of the solar flux index, A- and K-indexes, sunspot numbers and a grey line map.
  • Near-Real-Time MUF Map. This map, updated approximately every five minutes, shows Maximum Usable Frequencies (MUFs) for 3,000 kilometer radio signal paths. It also shows auroral ovals and the sunrise/sunset terminator (gray line). The map is produced by PropLab, a program you can purchase on this website for $150.
  • KN4LF’s Radio Propagation Theory Notes. KN4LF is a space weather scientist with the U.S. government.
  • International Beacon Project. The NCDXF, in cooperation with the IARU, constructed and operates a worldwide network of high-frequency radio beacons on 14.100, 18.110, 21.150, 24.930, and 28.200 MHz. These beacons help both amateur and commercial high-frequency radio users assess the current condition of the ionosphere.
  • DX Atlas. this company produces the software DXatlas, Ionoprobe, and HamCap to help hams predict propagation conditions. While not free, you can download the programs and use them for free for 30 days.

I really don’t need yet another thing to learn and work at, but knowing about this stuff will certainly make you a better amateur radio operator. I think it will be worth the effort.

Update 5/27/05: In the May 4, 2005 edition of the Contest Rate Sheet, Ward N0AX writes:

The details of short wave propagation are available in a detailed tutorial Introduction to HF Radio Propagation available at no charge from the Australian Space Weather Agency at http://www.ips.gov.au.

I just looked it over quickly, but the sections I read were very well written. I’ll not only be recommending this to my General Class students, but studying it myself as well.

Free Modelling Software

On the G4FQG Software page, R.J. Edwards says, “There ARE such things as free lunches,” and then goes on to prove that point by offering a bunch of “original, high-quality, radio engineering/modelling programs” for nothing.

There’s lots of good stuff here, including programs that will help you model and design:

  • loop antennas
  • helical antennas
  • loaded vertical antennas
  • toroids
  • transmission lines
  • impedance matching circuits for end-fed half wave antennas
  • etc., etc., etc.

One of the cool things about these programs are that they’re all DOS programs, and the downloadable files are all small .EXE files that you can run directly after downloading.

Antenna modelling has been on my list of ham radio to-do list for quite some time now, but I’ve been putting it off because getting into it usually means downloading a complicated program with a relatively steep learning curve. With these simple programs, I may actually get around to doing it. The one I’m most interested in at this point is VERTLOAD, which models base-fed vertical antennas with load coils at any height.

QSL Europe

Last week, the ARRL QSL Bureau graciously sent me another pack of QSL cards. This time, they were all from Europe including several from France, three or four from the Czech Republic, two from Asiatic Russia (does that count as a separate country??), two from Hungary, and one from Portugal. The two most remarkable ones, however, were from OE2BZL in Austria

and GM4DZX in the Orkney Islands, which is a group of islands off Scotland.

The card from Austria was the nicest looking one in the pack. Those guys in Austria got it made when it comes to scenery.

The card from the Orkney Islands is remarkable because I happen to live on Orkney Drive here in Ann Arbor. I happened to mention that to Bob when we had our QSO, and he got a kick out of that. Now, when people ask what Orkney means, I can show them the QSL card.

Every time I get a bunch of cards like these makes me want to upgrade my QSL card. We don’t have any old cathedrals or mountain scenery here, but we do happen to have the largest football stadium in the country here. Maybe I can put a picture of that on my card. What do you think?

I got some mileage out of this pack of cards. I got them on Wednesday and took them to class on Thursday. Several of the students were quite interested in them, and I hope that it gave them a little motivation to get down to business and get their licenses.

This Weekend on the Radio at KB6NU: My Best Score Yet!

The main ham radio activity this weeked at KB6NU was the FISTS Winter Sprint. It was really a blast. I did way better than the Fall Sprint, scoring 11,670 points on 79 QSOs and 30 multipliers. I followed pretty much the same strategy I did in the Fall Sprint. I operated just enough on 20m and 15m to add to the multiplier total and then banged away on 40m to roll up the QSOs. I didn’t work any DX this time, but I did increase my multipllier total from 21 to 30.

I even got to camp out on 7.058–the FISTS calling frequency–for about 30 or 40 minutes towards the end of the Sprint. I had a nice clear frequency for a while, but then N3BBO set up shop a couple 100 Hz away. Fortunately, I could filter him out pretty well, and it didn’t seem to stop other stations from hearing me and calling me.

My last QSO of the contest was with K4KSR, who was running QRP. When N3BBO transmitted, he covered him up completely. K4KSR stuck with me though, through several repeats, to complete the QSO. Thanks, Bill!

For those of you not familiar with the Fist Sprint, let me note that the exchange is kind of long. Stations must exchange a signal report, their sections, their names, and their FISTS number. On top of that, some operators will also send their FISTS Century Club number. Since this is not required, it annoys some guys. I must admit that it annoyed me, especially right at the end of the Sprint, when I really wanted to add a few more Qs to the log. Then, I remembered that one of the charms of the FISTS Sprint is the laidback nature of the contest. I took a deep breath, and the irritation melted away.

Yet Another CW CourseThis afternoon, I finally got around to checking out the K7QO CW Course, gracoiusly sent to me by KC8SVB. This course is somewhat different than others in that there’s no program involved. Instead, it’s a series of .mp3 files, which you play either on a computer, or if you burn them onto a CD, a portable CD player.

This latter feature makes it useful to those who want to study in the car or on a plane, but don’t want to haul around a laptop. You can get the course from http://puffin.tamucc.edu/k7qo/. You can download a PDF of the manual from http://puffin.tamucc.edu/k7qo/manual.pdf.

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Defend Your Data!

DefendAir Radio Shield paint is a product that seems intuitive, but I’ve never seen anything like it before. DefendAir Radio Shield is a flat interior paint designed to reduce the transmission of radio waves through walls, ceilings and doors, and the manufacturers are targeting companies that use wireless networks. They claim that the paint effectively shields RF transmissions below 5 GHz.

While this product is meant for wireless network users, there must be an amateur radio application. For example, perhaps the paint could be used on plastic enclosures to turn them into shielded enclosures.

The paint is kind of pricey, though. A gallon of paint costs $70, while a small container of additive (to add to a gallon of your own paint) costs $35.

PicoKeyer Now With MCW Mode……Finally

As I mentioned before, one of the reasons I bought the N0XAS PicoKeyer is that it had an MCW mode. In this mode, the RIG output instead of keying a CW transmitter is connected to the PTT input of a VHF/UHF rig to key it. This signal goes low once you start sending and stays low for two word spaces after you stop sending. The audio of the keyer is fed into the microphone input, and it’s this signal that’s actually turned on and off.

Of course, just because the keyer has this capability, doesn’t mean it’s actually easy to implement. For one thing, the keyer iself has no way to connect its audio to an external device. And while the key output (RIG signal) is available via a 1/4-in. phone plug, that’s not necessarily the easiest way to connect it to your rig. Another gotcha is that the audio output level is not necessarily the right level for your radio, either.

What I did was to cut a piece of perfboard, and mount the components I needed to that board. As you can see in the photo below, the board has a capacitor for decoupling, and a pot to adjust the audio level. To the right of the pot, is a small connector, to which the cable going to the VHF rig connects. Below the photo of the assembly is a schematic.

PicoKeyer with MCW board

PicoKeyer with MCW board

I Like Mice
There’s a cool story behind this connector and the cable. I’m using an Icom IC-207H in my shack. The data connector for this rig is a six-pin mini-DIN plug, exactly the kind of connector used for PC mice. On a club net, I asked if anyone might have a dead mouse they would be willing to part with for this project, and one guy, who works in PC support for a large university, volunteered that he had quite a few of them.

I was prepared to simply snip off the cable and solder the wires directly to the board, but when I dissassembled the mouse, I found that the cable connected to the board via the little header. I unsoldered it from the mouse PCB and super-glued it to the perfboard. the best part is that I didn’t have to fool around with stripping, tinning, and soldering those little wires in the cable.

As I noted earlier, the Pico Keyer does not have pads to easily connect the appropriate signals. What I did was to tack wires on to the bottom of the board and run them over to my MCW board. You can’t see these in the photo. It’s a little bit Mickey Mouse (pun intended), but it works OK.

Another Gotcha
After I built the board, I plugged the thing into my rig. This was kind of late Sunday night, but I was fortunate to find a club member monitoring the repeater on his way home from a weekend trip. I keyed it up, and asked him how it sounded. He said the tone was OK, but that it also sounded noisy. Looking at the power ouptut meter on the rig, it appeared as though the PTT line wasn’t working quite right. I hooked up the scope, and sure enough, that line was not being held constantly low. The result was that the keyer was rapidly keying and unkeying the radio.

The next day I swapped some e-mail with N0XAS, who located the problem, and promised to send me a replacement chip ASAP. It arrived in the mail yesterday. I plugged it in,and it’s now working like a charm.

One thing I might want to add to this circuit is an RC low pass filter to make the output signal less of a square wave and more of a sine wave. The guy who listened to me playing with it yesterday didn’t have any complaints about the tone, though, so that’s not a high priority.

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