Field Day 2012

OTVARC Field Day 2012 at Stub Stewart State Park

Even though I've been insanely busy with home life and running Etherkit, I felt like I needed to get out and do a bit of operating to get back in touch with that aspect of amateur radio. In the past few years, Dave W8NF has invited me to come up to the OTVARC Field Day site at Stub Stewart State Park, but I've avoided it due to the fact that late June is usually the time of year when my grass allergies peak here in western Oregon. Fortunately, this year has been a bit of a La Niña year, so it has been unusually wet and mild, which means that the pollen is under good control after a nice rain. A few days before Field Day this year, and my allergies had been pretty mild, so I decided to invite myself up to the public site to check it out and maybe do a little bit of operating.

I arrived at the park at about 4 PM on Saturday. As you can see from the photo above, the weather probably wasn't to the liking of most people, but it was perfect for me: dry, having just previously rained. OTVARC had four operating positions set up: one CW/digital tent (two K3s), one phone tent (two IC-756IIIs), one VHF (where the above photo was taken), and the GOTA station in the RV you can see in the center of the photo. It's hard to tell from the photo, but the antenna farm ran in a straight line from where I was standing down towards the pavilion in the background. There were 40 foot masts roughly equally spaced out with fixed beams on them, then wire antennas for the lower bands strung between the masts.

After a bit of chatting with W8NF and some introductions to club officers and members, I partook in the grilled hamburgers which were offered (wasn't going to eat OTVARCs food, but thanks for the invite!) and then Dave and I sat down in the phone tent to try to work some 20 meter SSB. I was at the logging PC and Dave was manning the mic (each phone station was equipped with Dave's brilliant Logiklipper, natch). We didn't have much success for some reason on 20 phone, probably due to the antenna we were stuck with (the G5RV, if I remember correctly). I ended up moving over to the other phone station, which was on 15 meters. I actually had a decent run of search & pounce operation, for a non-contester like myself. I wanted to try to park on a frequency and CQ, but I noticed it was 8 PM by this time, so I needed to get back home.

Prototype SSB Rig

Both before I left for Stub Stewart and after I returned, I also used Field Day as an opportunity to test out the "mainframe" of a new SSB transceiver design I've been working on (meaning the RF stages, minus the microcontroller/DDS/LED frequency display). A breadboarded DDS-60 was used as the temporary VFO for the radio, and I connected the whole works up to battery power to work as 1E OR from my own station. This iteration of the radio is monoband (20 meters on this unit) and QRP (power output is about 7 watts max with a IRFIZ16G final), so I knew I would be a little guppy in a big pond, but figured it was worth a try just to see that it was working properly. I actually ended up doing better than I expected. In about 1.5 hours of casual search & pounce operation, I was able to make 11 QSOs with stations in the sections NE, ID, AK, PAC (x3!), KS, AZ, and NM. The PAC stations were all in Hawaii and were booming in easily 20 to 60 dB over S9. Two of those three PAC QSOs were snagged on first call. It's a little spooky having such an easy QSO only using 6-7 watts SSB over such a long distance. Yes, all of the heavy lifting credit goes to the other station, but QRP SSB can work if you take care to know your propagation and try to work the stations which are loudest. Given a QTH from a peak (such as a SOTA activation) and a decent antenna, I don't doubt that it could be quite effective.

So the rig seems to work, and I don't even have a name for it yet, but it's shaping up quite nicely. The microcontroller/DDS/LED module is nearly complete, then I'm going to package the rig in a WA4MNT-style copper clad chassis so that I can take the rig with me to Salmoncon in a few weeks. With any luck, beta testing will begin in no more than two months, and hopefully a quick entry to the market after that. On a side note, as much as it pained me to set aside the CC-Series to develop something else, I think it was vitally important for me to do so. I was too stuck in a rut with the CC-Series design and needed a mental breakout to something different. I've learned some good circuit design ideas from this radio, which should translate into vast improvements in the next iteration of the CC-Series. I do intend to give my CC-Series beta testers a worthy radio in this next round of testing.

OpenBeacon Update

OpenBeacon Pre-production

Now that we are starting to get settled into a routine life with our new baby boy Eli, I've been able to sneak in some more work on the OpenBeacon project. The beta test is going fairly well, but I made a poor design decision in choosing a USB Micro-B connector and also made some schematic errors which needed to be patched for the beta PCBs. After we got home from the hospital and while Jennifer had her mom around to help, I was able to get back to Kicad, make the necessary changes and fixes, convert the USB Micro-B into a plain vanilla B and resubmit the files to Seeed Studio for rapid prototyping (also converted my EtherProg AVR programmer side project to USB B as well). Slightly less than two weeks later, and I had the nice circuit boards in hand!

First, I put together the EtherProg board to make sure that my new USB connector footprint was OK. A very quick assembly showed that everything was actually good this time! This gave me a bit of hope that maybe I completed the OpenBeacon PCB correctly this time. A bit nervously, I assembled the power supply and digital side of OpenBeacon, which rewarded me with some nice blinkenlights and proper USB enumeration on the PC. The analog side also went together quite nicely, although I needed to make a few component value tweaks in order to get the desired output power (about 300 mW) and enough harmonic suppression (maximum harmonic content of -45 dBc). A joyous day! Two successful PCB spins!

Now that the hardware is pretty much 100% nailed down, it's time to turn my attention completely to finishing the firmware. The basic beacon stuff is already in place, such as the QRSS, DFCW, Feld Hell, and CW modes. I still need to add extras such as multi-mode operation, custom glyphs, and multiple messages. But something has been whispering in the back of my mind lately. All of the previously mentioned modes are cool, but they lack the automatic reporting of some of the newer modes. It's particularly aggravating right now that there aren't many operational 30 meter grabbers in North America. It would be really cool to be able to add WSPR to the OpenBeacon repertoire so I can just set it and forget it. That seemed like a big challenge, but I have been following WA0UWH and KO7M having all kinds of beacon fun with their Propeller boards, and their efforts make it seem workable.

First OpenBeacon WSPR Capture
First OpenBeacon WSPR Capture

Thanks to an excellent blog post by KO7M, I was able to suss out the basics of the WSPR protocol and how to implement it in the relatively simple OpenBeacon hardware. The OpenBeacon uses non-linear varactor tuning of a VXO, while KO7M's Propeller beacon uses very precise frequency synthesis. I wasn't even sure if it would be possible to fake the necessary phase continuous 4-FSK modulation with the OpenBeacon, but I figured it was worth a shot to at least try to fake it.

Long story short, due to the robustness of K1JT's protocol and decoding software, I managed to pretty easily get a pre-generated message to transmit correctly with almost no tweaking of the transmitter. In fact, getting the transmit interval timing correct proved more challenging to me than the actual sending of the WSPR message symbols. The firmware is currently very bare-bones, with a hard-coded WSPR symbol string, hard-coded transmit interval (every 10 minutes) and the necessity to turn on the WSPR mode at precisely an even minute interval. Finishing out the firmware will require adding in the ability to change the WSPR message just like the standard message buffer, access to all of the WSPR parameters via the PC client program, and the ability to start the transmission with the pushbutton instead of doing it via the client program. Configuring the WSPR parameters will be a bit manual, but the beacon should be able to just sit there and do its thing once you've got that all setup.

So now the goal is to finish the firmware soon and get the Gerber files sent off to my PCB production house for a real production run. And get ready for my talk at FDIM! I know that these last two months are going to go awfully fast.

In the mean time, I'll be running the WSPR beacon for a while to see what captures I can get off 300 mW on 30 meters. It will also be a good test to see that the firmware can keep the transmit intervals synchronized over long periods of time. If I get any spots in the WSPR DB, I'll post them here as an update.

Edit: Here are my spots as of 0400 - 19 Mar 2012:

5 spots:

Timestamp Call MHz SNR Drift Grid Pwr Reporter RGrid km az
 2012-03-19 02:24  NT7S  10.140125  -15  0  CN85nm  0.02  NO6W  CM98  797  168
 2012-03-19 02:18  NT7S  10.140125  -24  0  CN85nm  0.02  NO6W  CM98  797  168
 2012-03-19 01:06  NT7S  10.140125  -17  0  CN85nm  0.02  NO6W  CM98  797  168
 2012-03-19 00:26  NT7S  10.140129  -24  -1  CN85nm  0.02  NO6W  CM98  797  168
 2012-03-18 22:34  NT7S  10.140126  -21  0  CN85nm  0.02  NO6W  CM98  797  168

The power is a lie, I'm actually at 200 mW, not 20 mW. Need to fix my WSPR symbol string.

25 Mar 2012 Update: I updated the firmware and client software to allow a WSPR transmission to start on command from the client. This allows me use the much more accurate PC clock to sync the transmissions. When only using the ATtiny85 timer, the best I could do was keep the beacon in sync for about 6 hours before it would drift fast or slow too much. With the PC tethering, I've been running overnight and all morning, and have managed to pick up a bunch of spots with my 300 mW.

42 spots:

Timestamp Call MHz SNR Drift Grid Pwr Reporter RGrid km az
 2012-03-25 18:24  NT7S  10.140170  -19  0  CN85nm  0.02  NO6W  CM98  797  168
 2012-03-25 18:18  NT7S  10.140169  -19  1  CN85nm  0.02  NO6W  CM98  797  168
 2012-03-25 18:12  NT7S  10.140168  -16  1  CN85nm  0.02  NO6W  CM98  797  168
 2012-03-25 18:06  NT7S  10.140167  -18  1  CN85nm  0.02  NO6W  CM98  797  168
 2012-03-25 18:00  NT7S  10.140167  -17  1  CN85nm  0.02  NO6W  CM98  797  168
 2012-03-25 17:54  NT7S  10.140168  -15  0  CN85nm  0.02  NO6W  CM98  797  168
 2012-03-25 17:36  NT7S  10.140132  -13  0  CN85nm  0.02  WA7KGX  CN85no  9  0
 2012-03-25 17:36  NT7S  10.140167  -13  0  CN85nm  0.02  NO6W  CM98  797  168
 2012-03-25 17:24  NT7S  10.140167  -18  1  CN85nm  0.02  NO6W  CM98  797  168
 2012-03-25 17:18  NT7S  10.140132  -16  1  CN85nm  0.02  VE6PDQ/1  DO33fl  1110  34
 2012-03-25 17:18  NT7S  10.140132  -16  1  CN85nm  0.02  WA7KGX  CN85no  9  0
 2012-03-25 17:12  NT7S  10.140142  -21  1  CN85nm  0.02  KC6KGE  DM05gd  1189  165
 2012-03-25 17:00  NT7S  10.140132  -18  1  CN85nm  0.02  WA7KGX  CN85no  9  0
 2012-03-25 17:00  NT7S  10.140130  -23  1  CN85nm  0.02  KL7UK  BP51ip  2468  326
 2012-03-25 17:00  NT7S  10.140131  -21  1  CN85nm  0.02  VE6PDQ/1  DO33fl  1110  34
 2012-03-25 17:00  NT7S  10.140168  -29  0  CN85nm  0.02  NO6W  CM98  797  168
 2012-03-25 16:54  NT7S  10.140131  -17  1  CN85nm  0.02  KL7UK  BP51ip  2468  326
 2012-03-25 16:48  NT7S  10.140133  -25  2  CN85nm  0.02  KC0TRX  EN34  2335  82
 2012-03-25 16:48  NT7S  10.140133  -17  0  CN85nm  0.02  WA7KGX  CN85no  9  0
 2012-03-25 16:36  NT7S  10.140145  -14  1  CN85nm  0.02  KC6KGE  DM05gd  1189  165
 2012-03-25 16:06  NT7S  10.140147  -23  1  CN85nm  0.02  KC6KGE  DM05gd  1189  165
 2012-03-25 16:00  NT7S  10.140138  -22  1  CN85nm  0.02  KC0TRX  EN34  2335  82
 2012-03-25 16:00  NT7S  10.140146  -23  1  CN85nm  0.02  KC6KGE  DM05gd  1189  165
 2012-03-25 15:36  NT7S  10.140147  -23  1  CN85nm  0.02  KC6KGE  DM05gd  1189  165
 2012-03-25 15:30  NT7S  10.140139  -21  1  CN85nm  0.02  KC0TRX  EN34  2335  82
 2012-03-25 15:24  NT7S  10.140147  -21  1  CN85nm  0.02  KC6KGE  DM05gd  1189  165
 2012-03-25 15:18  NT7S  10.140147  -23  0  CN85nm  0.02  KC6KGE  DM05gd  1189  165
 2012-03-25 15:06  NT7S  10.140135  -25  2  CN85nm  0.02  KC0TRX  EN34  2335  82
 2012-03-25 14:54  NT7S  10.140147  -20  1  CN85nm  0.02  KC6KGE  DM05gd  1189  165
 2012-03-25 14:30  NT7S  10.140147  -17  0  CN85nm  0.02  KC6KGE  DM05gd  1189  165
 2012-03-25 14:24  NT7S  10.140147  -20  1  CN85nm  0.02  KC6KGE  DM05gd  1189  165
 2012-03-25 13:48  NT7S  10.140136  -17  1  CN85nm  0.02  WA7KGX  CN85no  9  0
 2012-03-25 13:42  NT7S  10.140136  -16  1  CN85nm  0.02  WA7KGX  CN85no  9  0
 2012-03-25 13:36  NT7S  10.140136  -17  1  CN85nm  0.02  WA7KGX  CN85no  9  0
 2012-03-25 13:18  NT7S  10.140136  -17  1  CN85nm  0.02  WA7KGX  CN85no  9  0
 2012-03-25 13:12  NT7S  10.140136  -17  1  CN85nm  0.02  WA7KGX  CN85no  9  0
 2012-03-25 13:06  NT7S  10.140136  -17  1  CN85nm  0.02  WA7KGX  CN85no  9  0
 2012-03-25 11:36  NT7S  10.140134  -19  0  CN85nm  0.02  KC9NBV  EM69oe  3020  91
 2012-03-25 11:24  NT7S  10.140134  -16  1  CN85nm  0.02  KC9NBV  EM69oe  3020  91
 2012-03-25 11:18  NT7S  10.140134  -17  1  CN85nm  0.02  KC9NBV  EM69oe  3020  91
 2012-03-25 11:00  NT7S  10.140135  -2  1  CN85nm  0.02  KC9NBV  EM69oe  3020  91
 2012-03-25 09:12  NT7S  10.140136  -12  1  CN85nm  0.02  KC9NBV  EM69oe  3020  91

SOTA Fail on Clatskanie Mountain

PC030148.JPG This post is a bit late, but I wanted to be sure to document my first attempt at a SOTA activation and what I learned from it. The title is probably a bit harsh, but the eternal pessimist in me couldn't help it. I decided to attempt a SOTA activation after seeing a lot of increased activity from my esteemed ham colleagues such as KK7DS, KD0BIK, and of course the guy who probably introduced most of us Americans to the activity: WG0AT. I've always loved outdoor hikes and have done my share of outdoor operating from parks and campgrounds, so the idea of packing a portable station up to the top of a local peak has been sounding appealing for quite a while now.

The plan was put together with much haste, as I wanted to get up in the mountains before any bad storms hit. I used the tools at SOTAWatch to find some candidate peaks that were within reasonable driving distance and not very high, then digitally scouted them using Google Earth. The initial research yielded a list of about 5 candidate peaks which fit my criteria. After more studying, I decided to try for Clatskanie Moutain W7/NC-039. It's roughly 60 miles from my house, which translates to a one-way drive time of about 1.5 hours. The logging road from the highway to the peak was only about 3 miles, and it looked like I could drive all the way to the peak if I wanted to. The plan that I had in mind was to park at the cutoff to the little spur road that branched off to the peak. The distance from this intersection to the peak is only about 500 meters, an easy hike, but one that would fit within the spirit of the SOTA rules.

After deciding on a peak, I managed to rope Dave W8NF into going on the trip with me, a decision that I would be very grateful for later. Since I recently sold my FT-817, the only portable radio that I currently have is my CC-20 beta unit, and it was in a bit of a torn-up state since I've been making corrections that will be implemented in the final version. I also wanted to do some 10 meter operation, so I thought it would be fun to slap together a VXO-tuned DSB rig that might allow me to snag a few voice QSOs. Without getting into the painful details, I worked furiously to build the DSB rig and get the CC-20 back into working condition (without a proper enclosure!). In a homage to my school days, I didn't finish until late night just before the day we were to go on our little expedition, and even then I wasn't sure that my 10 meter DSB rig was working correctly.

PC030143.JPG

So the designated day, Saturday, 3 December came around and I was running on about four hours of sleep, but still excited to get up around 8 AM to get going. By 9:30 AM, I was out the door, able to grab my coffee, and get to Dave's house. We quickly made way to the peak, and had little difficulty finding the logging road off of the highway that would take us up to the peak. There was only one small problem. The gate was locked. I should have done better due diligence (such as experienced SOTA expeditioner KK7DS explains here) and picked up a proper topo map from the local forestry office. I was planning on a short hike to the peak, but I really didn't want to turn around and drive back 1.5 hours having not even tried. I knew we were about 3 miles from the peak, which was a bit of a hike for some one as out of conditioning as me, but I felt I could probably hack it. Graciously, Dave agreed to hike it, so we grabbed our packs and I lugged the bulky, oversized sack with the Buddipole and we made way for Clatskanie Mountain. Fortunately for us, the weather couldn't be any better for a December trek in the Oregon Coastal Range. The skies were mostly clear, with just a bit of high clouds and some patches of fog below us.

PC030160.JPGWe had a pleasant hike up to the peak, and while I (the guy who is mostly sedentary and fat) had to stop for frequent breathers, Dave (the guy who runs half-marathons) didn't seem to have too much difficulty with the 3 mile hike and 700 foot elevation gain. When we reached the peak at sometime around 1:30 PM, we were greeted with a very spiffy microwave tower and wonderful view of the Columbia River below us to the north. The temperature was chilly (I'm guessing around 35° F) but the wind was slight.

There was a large earthen berm behind the microwave facility that gave us a point to operate with the mountain sloping away west, north, and east. I brought along my EFHW antennas, but decided not to deploy them at first since there weren't any trees at this location. I deployed the Buddipole in L-configuration with Dave's help and he broke out his FT-817 and started listening on 10 meters. As expected, the bands were ultra quiet up here far away from any big RF noise generators (save that big microwave tower right behind us!).

PC030156.JPG While Dave sent out some CQs on 28.060 MHz, I unpacked my DSB radio and the CC-20 beta. Dave didn't have any luck getting responses, which struck me as a bit odd. We could hear plenty of signals, and we had his Elecraft T-1 in-line and tuned-up. So I decided to try the DSB radio. A few quick cable changes and it was ready to go. Only one small problem. It was completely deaf. Well, that's what I get for trying to get a radio on the air in such a hasty fashion. I felt bad because I knew that there were people listening for me on my pre-spotted frequency of 28.650 MHz, but somewhat surprisingly I was wasn't successful in getting cell service on the peak, so I couldn't spot a new notification. Sometime around these events, the wind started picking up, making the temperature feel wicked cold with the wind chill factor.

So next up was the CC-20. Again, dead as a doornail (I later found out that it was a bad solder joint in the VFO circuitry that popped loose on the hike). Dave was kind enough to let me use his FT-817 to try to get my four required QSOs to count for a proper SOTA activation. The 10 meter QRP watering hole was awfully quiet, but I figured that some CQing should bring people out. Turns out that I didn't have much luck. I managed to work a weak WA8REI, then a booming JA1KGW (this guy is an awesome QRPer). By this time, both Dave and I were getting awfully cold. The wind seemed to be getting stronger and the temperature felt like it kept dropping. My further CQs were going unanswered, so I thought that 10 meters might be starting to close up and that we should move to 20.

We quickly re-resonated the Buddipole for 20 meters and re-tuned the T-1. I tried calling CQ on a few different frequencies near the QRP watering hole, but never did get any calls on 20 meters. I'm not sure how long I tried calling, but I didn't have a memory keyer to use, so I was manually sending the CQ each time, and it was getting sloppier and sloppier due to my numb hands. Poor Dave was pacing around to keep warm by this point. As much as it killed me to leave before activating the summit, we we both very uncomfortable and needed to leave soon regardless, because we only had about 1.5 hours of sunlight left at this point.

PC030146.JPGAll of our stuff got packed up in record time and we started downhill at a brisk pace. But only a few hundred meters from the peak, my leg started cramping up bad from the cold weather. A bit of stretching worked it out, but then it kept recurring every few hundred meters! We both wanted to get back to the warmth of my pickup as fast as possible, but my leg was not cooperating very well. Dave patiently waited as I stopped each time to try to work out the leg cramps. Although it took longer than expected, we did reach the gate right when the dark was really starting to set in. Getting back in the truck and heating up my body mercifully ended the awful leg cramps.

I'm a perfectionist by nature, so it still bothers me that I didn't get my activation of Clataskanie Mountain. And it's tough to try to demonstrate the fun and effectiveness of QRP to a non-QRPer like  Dave when you have such a lousy radio day as I did. I am very glad that Dave was there, as I might have stayed on the peak too late to get back before dark if I was only thinking of myself and of trying to complete my activation. I also realized that a nearly 7 mile round trip hike for a unconditioned hiker such as myself would have been incredibly foolish. If my leg cramps had been worse, I could have been stuck up there in the dark over night. I used to hike like this with no problems, but I have to remind myself that this was 10+ years ago and that I was in much better shape then.

It's a cliché, but I did learn a lot from the trip, regardless of the radio results. I do intend to try it again in the spring, once the bad winter storms have passed and I have my radios really ready to go. Stay tuned for further adventures!

Response code is 403

Two Watts Across the Pacific

I don't know exactly why, but I've had a bit of an obsession with the T32C DXpedition to Kiritimati since they got started a few weeks ago. Maybe because I found them easier to work than many of the DXpeditions that I've tried before. The fact that they are a very well-run operation has something to do with it, I'm sure. Whatever the reason, once I got a few contacts under my belt, I became driven to try to work them on all band slots practical for CW and SSB. I have a ZS6BKW antenna, so I can load it up from 10 to 80 meters. I figured 10 — 80 was a reasonable goal, but I knew the lower bands were going to be tougher since my antenna is only up at about 30 feet.

With the bands being as hot as they have been in the last month or so, it hasn't been a great challenge to fill up the band slot chart for the most part. Almost all of the QSOs made over the last few days have been snagged within one or two calls (I also thank W9KNI's book The Complete DXer for teaching me very valuable basic DXing skills). I will admit that I've been running 100 W output for these QSOs — with one important exception.

20 meters CW was one of the slots that I had not yet filled as of this morning (oddly enough, since that's THE DX band). Over the last few weekends, I've been hacking away on the firmware to the CC-Series, trying to get the last major features up and working bug-free. Thanks to a request from AA7EE, I just implemented XIT on top of the RIT that was already in the firmware (speaking of Dave, go check out his even more impressive T32C QRP story). The nice thing about XIT is that it allows you to relatively easily work split stations like DX, even though there is no "official" dual-VFO capability in the rig. Since the XIT capability seemed to be mostly working correctly, I wanted to put the CC-20 on the air to try it out and be certain. The first station that I worked today with the CC-20 was K6JSS/KL7, operated by well-known Alaskan QRPer AL7FS. It was a simplex QSO, but it was nice to bust the mini-pileup with my first call. While continuing to work on CC-20 development, I monitored the DX cluster to see when T32C would show up on 20 meters. Sure enough, I ended up seeing him pop up on the cluster at about 0200 UTC. Time to put the CC-20 to the test.

I don't have a valiant battle to describe. It took me about 10 calls to finally get him, although there weren't a lot of people calling him. I suspect that the majority of my trouble in getting him was in zero-beating him with the unpackaged encoder knob. While in RIT or XIT mode, pressing in the tune knob toggles between the TX and RX VFOs. Trying to do that quickly when it's not mounted on a chassis is tricky! Regardless, it didn't take long until I heard the sweet sound of my callsign coming back to me across the vast Pacific Ocean. Two watts spanning 3600 miles to a tropical island in the middle of a huge ocean is pretty neat. This doesn't rank in the annals of great QRP achievements, but it will always be a memorable QSO for me.

VOACAP For Linux

During some discussions with AA7EE regarding a seeming lack of 20 meter propagation between us at any time right now, we both decided to do a bit of research into what was even feasible according to predictive software. Dave went to the VOACAP web service from OH6BG to get some nice plots which showed that indeed it would be nearly impossible for us to make a 20 meter QSO right now.

The web site is nice, but being a Linux nerd, I wanted to see if I could find comparable software for my PC. A small bit of searching led me to VOACAPL from HZ1JW, and the matching package pythonProp, which gives a GUI frontend to the CLI VOACAP interface.

The installation of the VOACAPL software is quite easy if you are using Ubuntu. Just download the .DEB file and install using your favorite package manager. Installing pythonProp is a bit more involved, since there are a fair number of dependencies to install first, but as long as you closely follow the instructions on the website it shouldn't be much of a problem.

If you are like me and the thought of tackling VOACAP through the command line was a little bit daunting, then the voacapgui tool (in the pythonProp package) is just what you are looking for. The GUI has three main tabs for interacting with the program: one for the site information (transmitter and receiver QTH, antenna, and power), one tab to execute point-to-point channel analysis, and one for generating area propagation maps.

As you can see above, the P2P tab can get you a nice plot of the probability of making a QSO over a certain path with the specified antennae and power levels. And since this is a Linux port of the program that Dave used on the web, the data we got back was nearly identical. No 20 meter QSOs for us right now.

Here you can see an area map showing circuit reliability for 7 MHz at 0300 UTC during Oct 2011 using 5 watts. That doesn't look very good! (Sometimes I wonder if the predictions for low power are a bit out-of-whack. This software was originally written for VOA, so I wonder if it's really calculating the reliability for a 5 W AM signal. I am a total novice at this, so I expect some VOACAP expert will probably put me some knowledge on this, as the kids say).

Any way, it's a neat package to play around with if you have a Linux box. Many thanks to HZ1JW for taking the time to port VOACAP over to Linux in a easy-to-use package.

Update

Sure enough, I made a mistake. Had I read the documentation more thoroughly, I would have seen that parameter Required SNR was set to a default suitable for SSB. At least I was onto the right idea a few paragraphs above. Here's the same area plot as before, but with the Required SNR set for a suggested value of 24 for CW operation.

That looks better!

QRP ARCI Golden Jubilee

You QRP guys probably already know this, but I'm hoping that some of my non-QRP readers will check this out as well. QRP ARCI, perhaps the world's largest QRP club, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. As part of its golden anniversary celebrations, the organization is running a special event throughout the year. Each week, member volunteers will be activating K6JSS (callsign of QRP ARCI #1 Harry Blomquist and the current club call) from a different state in the Union, as well as DC and Puerto Rico.

ARCI will be offering some special awards in connection with the event. Rather than try to rehash them, allow me to requote the messages sent to QRP-L. First, details on certificates and QSLs from W4DU:

We recently announced that the club will mark its' 50th anniversary by
activating the club call (K6JSS) in all 50 states throughout 2011 (see
http://www.qrparci.org/content/view/8371/118/ ). A special "Worked All
States" certificate will be issued to all that qualify.  QSL cards will be
sent via SASE.  We are off to a good start as Connecticut and Hawaii were on
during the first two weeks of the year.  Currently, Georgia operators are
activating K6JSS.  Our thanks to the operators in these three states in
getting us off to a great start!  A schedule for this event along with other
helpful details is available at the link above. Here are a few items that
warrant clarification:

1.  A valid contact is considered an exchange of signal reports - QRP ARCI
numbers are not required nor are QTH/Name/etc. But we suggest RST + QRP ARCI
number or power out if not a member.

2. You can "claim" the K6JSS QRP ARCI number even if it is not exchanged.
We all will know pretty quickly, if not previously, that it is QRP ARCI #1.
If you don't know your QRP ARCI number, go to http://qrparci.org/ and click
on "Member Lookup".  Enter you call and your number will be displayed. If
you are not a member, you can exchange power out in lieu of a number.  Of
course you can also join at http://www.qrparci.org and receive a number!

3. Requests for QSLs go to the address listed at qrz.com for K6JSS. Please
send an SASE.  All requests for QSLs with an SASE will be honored.  However,
to control the costs and the work of our volunteers, we ask that you not
request a K6JSS QSL for each and every state you work during the year. Of
course if you require a QSL for an award, then we'll be happy to QSL with an
SASE of course.  Again, all requests for QSLs will be honored.  Just use
your discretion as to help us control the load.  The QSL card design is
complete; we are just tweaking it. We will not have cards to mail to you
until approximately February 1.  We will NOT be doing LoTW which we have
considered because it is very complicated for this event

4. At the end of the year, special certificates (different from the QRP All
States award) will be issued to any amateur confirming QSOs with K6JSS in 20
or more of the 50 states of the USA while running QRP. Endorsement
certificates are issued at 30, 40 and 50 states confirmed. QRP ARCI awards
do not require QSLs with the application for an award.  Just a list that you
prepare certifying that you worked the stations listed for the award and GCR
- General Class Review of 2 General Class or higher amateur friends of
yours.  You can down load the GCR form on the qrparci.org site.  This
approach will be used for the Golden Jubilee Award.

5. If you miss a few states and are desirous of getting all fifty, we will
present some opportunities at the year's end to pick up a few states that
you may have missed.  So if you find yourself getting a late start, jump in
and work what is on now.

We are encouraging K6JSS operators to work as many modes and bands as
possible.  Check QRP Spots (http://qrpspots.com/ ) often to determine who is
on.

Since I am in Georgia, I am one of the ops activating the call this week.
Two nights on 60 meters have yielded 24 contacts in 2 countries and 15
states.   Ill be trying RTTY and 17 meter SSB later in the week.

Enjoy the year!

Ken Evans, W4DU
President - QRP ARCI

Next, a bit on extra prizes from ARRL courtesy of W1RFI:

<snip>

I also sweetened the pot with some 2012 ARRL Handbooks to be given out
as prizes.  They will be defaced with signatures from the ARRL Lab
staff, so they will have no monetary worth, but are much like plaques
and other prizes for various on-the-air contests.

The first Handbook will go to the first person to work all 50 states, so
out of the ones that have 49 states near the end, one will be first.

Nine others will be given to the persons who work all 50 states with the
least amount of total time spent on the air, starting at 0001 Z after
each state is active. Honor system on logs and just total the time.  If
there are not enough 50-state people, we will start counting back to 49,
48. etc., with the least amount of time for each having priority.

One other Handbook will be saved for whoever works K6JSS on the largest
comibnation of bands and modes, so go get 'em on different modes.

If you miss a state, don't worry, as there will be a few ways announced
later on how you can make up the state later. It will be quite hard to
work all 50 states, especially KL7, where propagation can make QSOs
pretty tough. The ICEPAC software does a better job than VOACAP to
predict propagation at high latitudes, so when the KL7 operation is
firmed up, I will post a link to a prop chart for KL7 to the mainland
that may help the KL7 and mainland ops plan their operating.

So everybody will have a shot at a prize here if they manage a good
showing and there are certificates going to be issued for working 20 or
more states.  And although the makeup plans aren't finalized yet (sorry,
we ARCI BoD folks are all volunteers), it should easy to manage to get
credited for all 50 states.

There is a real shot that a few may manage to work all 50 states with
K6JSS and I think that would be a hoot to see a WAS award issues for
contact with one call sign!

Ed Hare, W1RFI
ARRL - The national association for Amateur Radio
ARRL Laboratory Manager

<snip>

For some stupid reason, I didn't really think about this event until the first week had passed, which was the state of Connecticut. However, I've made a 2-way QRP QSO with every state after CT, and hope to get as many more as I can this year. It would be great to get QRP WAS (I don't even have regular old WAS confirmed); which seems like a daunting task, but I really only have to successfully make one QSO a week. I'm pretty sure that I can hit most states from here with my current antenna system. One good thing going for me is the ease of contacting the states that are difficult for many other hams out east: Alaska and Hawaii. I've already bagged HI, and AK contacts are rarely a problem for me (unless the solar winds wipe out the path).

I'd like to operate K6JSS/7 for the State of Oregon, but I'm a bit leery of committing myself to that right now, given how hard it is for me to get more than a few minutes of operating time while my son naps. Hopefully, things will settle down enough to let me do a little bit of operating when the time comes.

Even if you are not a QRP op, I hope you will try to make some QSOs with the special event stations. Even if you don't work CW, there are ops that are using SSB...so you have no excuse. Check QRPSPOTS for information on where to find the current K6JSS operations.

This Is What Radio Is All About

KE7GKM QSO
KE7GKM QSO

Over the last few days, Jennifer has been off work, so I've been able to spend more time in the shack working on Project X. I only recently made my first QSO with the prototype rig (I think propagation was unfavorable for me when I was trying late in the evenings), so I've been leaving the radio hooked up to my bench AF amp and monitoring 7030 kHz during the day.

Late this afternoon, I heard a very strong station calling CQ just a bit up from 7030. I bumped the VFO up a bit and found that it was KE7GKM calling at a nice, comfortable speed for me (my CW is rusty after quite a few months off the air). While I called him back, the thought occurred to me that the call sounded familiar, but I couldn't remember how. After getting the QSO basics out of the way, I remembered why. Bob said that he was using a VRX-1 and homebrew QRP transmitter combo! Then it hit me that Bob had just e-mailed me about a week ago to ask me a few questions regarding the VRX-1.

I don't get on the air as much as I should (seems like I'm melting solder way more than pounding brass), but when I get a chance, it means so much to me to have a contact with someone who has built one of my radio designs. It's even more special when I get that make that QSO with a homebrewed radio on my own end as well. If I remember correctly, this is only the second time that I've done such a thing.

Bob told me that he is trying to get to 100 QSOs with his VRX-1/HB TX combo, and that I was QSO #80 (if I remember correctly, my notes aren't great). I wish Bob all the best of luck in his endeavor. It certainly looks like he doesn't have much more to do in order to meet his goal.

It's hard to beat an experience like this in capturing the essence of amateur radio for me. It is my hope that more amateurs will homebrew their own gear so that they can get that same thrill.

Ghosts In The Ether

I recently stumbled upon a fascinating Wikipedia page that just might describe a phenomena that I bet just about every one of us CW ops have experienced at times. You've just finished off a marathon CW effort such as a contest or Field Day and finally get a chance to lay down, close your eyes, and try to get some sleep in a nice quiet room. Almost too quiet. You're drifting to sleep...and then you hear it. Strains of CW, just on the edge of your hearing. You can almost make out some meaning, but it's not quite coherent. It's just your mind playing tricks on you.

The article which I found describes a condition known as Pareidolia, as Wikipedia sums up quite succinctly:

Pareidolia (pronounced /pærɪˈdoʊliə/ pa-ri-DOE-lee-ə) is a psychological phenomenon involving a vague and random stimulus (often an image or sound) being perceived as significant. Common examples include seeing images of animals or faces in clouds, the man in the moon, and hearing hidden messages on records played in reverse.

Long story short, our brains are supremely attuned to pattern matching, probably as a survival mechanism. At times, it is likely that it leads us to perceive meaningful patterns where in reality there are none. An extreme example would be those people who see images of Jesus in their grilled cheese sandwich or that nutty Reverse Speech guy, but we've all experienced minor versions of it at some times in our lives.

It seems that there must be some aspect of immersing yourself in CW that makes you even more susceptible to the phenomena for some time afterward. In my experience, sometimes it's taken an hour or two to shake it from my head. Even when I haven't been recently working CW, there are times where some random squeaks or beeps perk up my ears and get me in the CW copying mind frame. It's a funny and peculiar thing, to be sure.

Last Chance Hammin'

Perhaps that's a bit melodramatic, but my time for operating and homebrewing is going to be severely curtailed very soon. Baby Boy Milldrum will be arriving any day now (the estimated due date is July 22) and we're in full-blown panic mode as we finish the last minute preparations to get the baby's room ready, make sure we have all of the assorted baby stuff that's needed, and take care of those homeowner chores that need to be done for the summer. So I figured that I should take some free moments to enjoy the hobby while I can. Sometimes I feel like every blog post here should have some really meaty and meaningful content, but perhaps that inhibits me from posting more than a few times a month. So prepare for this post and many of my future posts to cater a bit more to the short attention span crowd. I'll have to get my ham radio in small doses whenever I can, so expect a bit of ADD to set into the blog for a while.

Anyway, my inbox has been blowing up with DX Sherlock alerts telling me that 6 meters has been open most evenings over the last few weeks. I finally broke down and dug out the Buddipole components on Friday so I could try to snag a few QSOs on 50 MHz. I managed to grab a few SSB QRP QSOs with the FT-817 into VE4 and VE6-land on Friday night using the Buddipole in a simple dipole configuration. The band was in great shape that night, as I could hear a lot of East Coast stations coming in quite strong via multihop Es. On Saturday, I tried to work CW QRP on 50.096 MHz but had zero success even after calling CQ many, many times. The band was open and there was still plenty of activity on the SSB portion of the band, but CW was a bust. Come on CW ops, we've got to do better than this.

I still managed to make it a interesting ham radio night. After packing in the gear from the back deck, I went into the shack, flipped on the HF rig, and checked 20 meters (just around sunset local time). Very soon I stumbled upon the legendary Martti, OH2BH calling US West Coast stations. After a quick tune-up, I was able to snag him within about 4 calls. He was absolutely booming into Beaverton (by the sounds of it, he was booming into the entire western portion of the US). This was my first QSO with Martti and was memorable to be sure.

Moving on to a more unpleasant topic, am I the only one who things that most of the ham mailing lists are dying of a creeping mediocrity and groupthink mentality? The big two QRP-Ls are mostly a joke as far as getting an interesting, topical discussion going. On the other hand, start bitching about computers or some other off-topic old fart rant, and you'll get 30 messages a day. The SKCC group made me sick with its virtual pitchforks-and-torches assault on the new owner of Vibroplex because he had the audacity to replace the stamped brass identification plates with a silkscreened version. The way that a few prominent members of that group (including one who is affiliated with a competing key manufacturer I might add) character assassinated the owner was quite disgusting.

This provides a nice segue into another topic people love to hate: Twitter. I quit tweeting a few months ago due to the large jackass/decent person ratio that I was experiencing. I thought I would miss it quite a bit, but once I got over the DTs in a few days I didn't really miss it much at all. I still debate whether I should go active on Twitter again, because I see some utility in it; but even when you remove the jerk factor, it still feels like drinking from a firehose most of the time. Not to mention that huge time sink that results from checking your account all of the time make sure you are up-to-the-minute on the latest crap. What to do?

Finally, a plea. Some of you may know of qrpedia.com, which I tried (and failed miserably) to turn into a QRP/homebrewer aggregated blog and knowledge repository. It's already in sad shape, but with the new kid coming, I know I'll have no time to devote to it, so I need to let it go. I don't want to nuke the site because there are a handful of people who put a lot of hard work into posting content there. I would like to sell the site for a nominal price and have it go to someone who could give it another chance. Please contact me if this interests you at all. Prices and terms are very negotiable.