Coding, Cool Stuff, Etherkit, Wideband Transmission

Wideband Transmission #8

Another 10 mW WSPR Beacon

I enjoy writing up my projects, but it’s much better to get feedback to see that someone was actually able to take my writing and successfully duplicate my project. Via the Etherkit Twitter account, I received this from Tom Hall, AK2B regarding my last posted project:

Awesome work! Tom has been a great supporter of Etherkit from the beginning and I’d like to thank him for sharing his neat creations with the rest of us. It’s wonderful to see such a minimalist design perform so well!

More Coding Resources for Fun

I haven’t had a ton of free time here, but I do get snippets of time occasionally where I can sit with my notebook PC for a bit and mess around. As mentioned in some recent posts, I’ve been revisiting coding for fun, and I’ve stumbled upon quite a bit of new resources that are new to me and that I thought would be good to share.

The first one I’d like to mention is called Scratchapixel. I was curious about the mathematical methods behind 3D rendering, and some searching brought me to this exhaustive tutorial site. It’s not 100% complete yet, but most of the fundamentals of 3D graphics are already well-explained there. A fantastic resource if you are curious about the first principles of 3D rendering like me.

A related site is called Shadertoy. Not by the same people, but also related to the topic of learning 3D programming. Shadertoy is a web application that lets you play with shaders in C++ inside a web IDE that can be updated on-the-fly. It takes a bit of CPU and graphics horsepower to run comfortably, but if you’ve got the capacity, it’s worth browsing the demos on the site just to see the cool stuff you can create with it. This tool was created by Íñigo Quílez, who also has a really cool home page with lots of tutorials and whitepapers. If you like demoscene stuff, then definitely check it out.

Another neat find that I only recently discovered goes by the name of Rosetta Code. It bills itself as a programming chrestomathy site, which basically means that it’s a way to learn how programming languages are related in a comparative way. There is a large directory of different programming tasks, and each task page lists ways to implement a solution in a wide variety of languages. It’s a wiki, so not every page has every language implementation, but there’s obviously a ton of work put into the site, and most tasks have implementation in the major languages. Really fascinating and useful at the same time.

Finally, there’s The Nature of Code. This site hosts a free e-book download of the content, and provides a link to purchase a dead tree version if you wish. Here’s how the website describes the book:

How can we capture the unpredictable evolutionary and emergent properties of nature in software? How can understanding the mathematical principles behind our physical world help us to create digital worlds? This book focuses on the programming strategies and techniques behind computer simulations of natural systems using Processing.

That sounds right up my alley. I haven’t read the book yet, but I have skimmed it a bit, and it looks like the kind of things that I love: non-linear systems, physics simulations, fractals, and the like. When things settle down here a bit, I may tackle the book and re-write the sample code into Python. That would give me some more Python practice and force me to really think about the algorithms behind the text, not just blindly copying, pasting, and executing the scripts.

Let me know in the comments if you found any of these links useful or fascinating, or better yet if you know of other links in the same vein.

New Miles-Per-Watt Record Opportunity?

If you regularly follow science news, you may have heard of the Breakthrough Starshot initiative. In short, this is a study to create pathfinding technology that would allow the eventual launch of micro-lightsails with tiny mass to the Alpha Centauri system at a significant velocity (0.2c!) with a ground-based laser array. It’s probably a serious effort, as it is being privately funded to the tune of a whopping $100,000,000. No doubt, an extremely audacious undertaking.

Sounds interesting, but what does this have to do with radio? Well, obviously there’s the issue of how you can get a usable signal back to Earth across a distance of 4-and-a-half lightyears from a craft that masses in 10s of grams. I was wondering about that exact engineering challenge when I came across this article in my feed reader today. It turns out that someone has studied how one might use the Sun as a gravitational lens for lightwave communication across interstellar distances. Claudio Maccone, an Italian physicist, has run an analysis and has determined that putting a receiver at distance of at least 550 AU from Sol will give the desired lensing effect for optical communications.

Speaking before Maccone at the Breakthrough Discuss meeting, Slava Turyshev (Caltech) pointed out that the gain for optical radiation through a FOCAL mission is 1011, a gain that oscillates but increases as you go further from the lens. This gives us the opportunity to consider multi-pixel imaging of exoplanets before we ever send missions to them.

That’s kind of amazing. Maccone calculates that the bit error rate of optical communication from at any significant distance from Sol quickly degrades to around 0.5. However, by using the Sun as a lens, the BER stays at 0 out to a distance of 9 LY. Here is a graph of the effect of standard comms and those enhanced by using the Sun as a gravitational lens, as calculated by Maccone:

fig024

What’s really crazy is this next paragraph:

But as Maccone told the crowd at Stanford, we do much better still if we set up a bridge with not one but two FOCAL missions. Put one at the gravitational lens of the Sun, the other at the lens of the other star. At this point, things get wild. The minimum transmitted power drops to less than 10-4 watts. You’re reading that right — one-tenth of a milliwatt is enough to create error-free communications between the Sun and Alpha Centauri through two FOCAL antennas. Maccone’s paper assumes two 12-meter FOCAL antennas. StarShot envisions using its somewhat smaller sail as the antenna, a goal given impetus by these numbers.

So that would have to rate as the ultimate QRP DX, eh? I’m not sure how realistic any of this is, but I’m pretty sure the physics are well-established by now. Kind of makes the Elser-Mathes Cup look like small potatoes.

 

Operating, QRP, SOTA

SOTA After Action Report – Sheridan Peak

Thanks to the efforts of Etienne Scott, K7ATN, we who live in the Pacific Northwest have a couple of nice SOTA summit-to-summit activity days each year. One that happens in early spring and if I remember correctly the other which occurs later in the summer. I participated in the spring S2S Party two years ago, but haven’t had a SOTA activation since.

As mentioned in a previous post, things have been kind of crazy here lately, and Jennifer has been encouraging me to get out to do something I enjoy, so I decided to take this Saturday to participate in the S2S Party. I was considering Bald Peak, which is just on the outskirts of the Beaverton-Hillsboro area, and makes for a quick and easy trip, but by the time that I went to Sotawatch to claim it, I noticed that K7ATN had already done so. Thanks to SOTA Maps, I was able to easily browse some other peaks relatively close, and settled on Sheridan Peak, especially since a previous trip report tagged it as a fairly easy drive and hike.

I needed a travelling companion, so I asked my 5-year-old son Noah if he wanted to go, and he eagerly agreed. I wasn’t sure if that enthusiasm would hold up during the trip, but at least because of the short hike to the summit, it would be easy to bail out if necessary. So we departed the house at around 9 AM, stopped by McDonalds for a light breakfast and a large coffee for me, then took the backroads of Washington and Yamhill Counties out to Sheridan Peak.

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The drive was uneventful, other than my phone’s GPS getting a bit lost at the very end of the trip. However, the driving directions from the two previous write-ups of this peak on pnwsota.org were great and got me right to the parking lot. Actually, the gate to the parking lot was closed, but that was OK because there is a nice big turnout on the road immediately below it, so we just parked there and walked around the closed gate.

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The hike up to the summit was quite easy, and Noah did well for one of his first actual hikes. Unsurprisingly for a peak in the Oregon Coast Range, the weather was damp and showery. Although we didn’t have much of a view from the top due to the forest, one big advantage of that was the canopy over our heads providing a bit of a break from the rain.

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Fortunately, I was prepared for the rain, and I quickly erected a tarp shelter for us to use to take cover from the elements. It was actually fairly cozy under the shelter, as another advantage of the tree cover was that it was acting as a nice wind break from the usual chilly blast you get on a peak.

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I don’t currently own any HF portable gear, but thanks to the generosity of W8NF, I was able to borrow a Yaesu FT-817 and Elecraft T1 tuner. A few days prior to the activation, I cut a random wire and counterpoise that would at least work on 40 and 20 meters, and tested it in my backyard. That turned out to be a good thing, as I was able to get my wire in the tree and get the 817 QRV with no problems at all. I also brought along my Baofeng UV-5R with rubber duck/tiger tail combo for 2 meter FM ops, with the 817 as the designated backup if that didn’t work.

At the designated time of noon local, I heard K7ATN full quieting on 2 meters (which wasn’t a huge shock, as his peak was only about 20 miles away from mine). There wasn’t a huge turnout for this activity day like there was a few years ago when I did it on Cooper Mountain, but I did manage to make four S2S QSOs on 2 meter FM with the UV-5R in order to officially activate the peak. Woo! After that, I switched to 40 meters LSB on the 817 and made a couple of S2S QSOs with stations that I had already talked to on 2 meters and one with a local chaser. Finally, I had K7ATN spot me on 20 meters and managed to squeak out a couple more SSB QRP QSOs, both with stations in Arizona. By then, Noah was getting a bit cold and wanted to get going, but I was pretty happy with the results. From the sounds of things on 2 meters, a few of the other activators had some pretty crummy weather conditions to deal with, especially NS7P on Mary’s Peak.

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So after about an hour on the peak, Noah and I packed everything up and headed back down the half mile or so to the pickup. I was very proud of Noah, as he did great for a 5-year-old; never really complaining and obviously really enjoying being out in nature, plus I think he liked the radio activity as well.

I’m really happy to have made this activation, especially since I was able to get Noah involved in both an activity out in nature plus radio fun! Thanks again to K7ATN for all of the hard work that you put into the PNW SOTA community and the rest of the activators for getting out there in this wet spring Oregon day. Stay tuned for hopefully one or two more SOTA activations this year, hopefully with more family members coming along on future trips.

Edit: Here’s a recap of the event from K7ATN.

CC-Series, Etherkit, Homebrewing, Operating, QRP, Wideband Transmission

Wideband Transmission #5

Latest CC1 Progress

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As you can see from the above photo, I have finished a significant portion of the digital side of the newest CC1 prototype and now I’m on to the receiver section. This weekend I finished my first pass of the audio chain and characterized the gain and frequency response of the chain. Next up is the design of the IF and front end of the receiver. This time I plan to do a much better job of characterizing the performance of entire radio, designing for specific critical receiver specifications, and iterating the design as necessary instead of holding on to dodgy performance from circuits.

Mixer Investigations and the Search for Better Dynamic Range

Since I decided to ditch the dual-gate MOSFET mixer front end, I’ve been considering what to replace it with. At first, I was thinking about using the ADE-1 for the mixer and product detector, but I’ve been intrigued with reading about H-Mode mixers over the last few weeks, which led me to the similar, but simpler KISS mixer by Chris Trask. That seemed like a good candidate for the CC1, with relative simplicity and better-than-average performance. Since good IP3 performance is the main characteristic of this mixer, I wanted to try measuring IIP3 at my own bench to see how it looked in a home made circuit with less than optimal parts and layout.

To get warmed up, I first attempted to measure the IIP3 of a few parts that I had on hand where I already knew IIP3 values to expect: the SBL-1 and the ADE-1. Using a DG1022 as the signal generators, my HFRLB as a hybrid combiner, and the DSA815TG, I was able to measure an IIP3 of +13 dBm for the SBL-1 and +17 dBm for the ADE-1, which is pretty much right on what other people have published.

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Here is my test setup for measuring the KISS mixer performance. I deviated from the circuit described in the KISS mixer white paper in a few ways. First, I used a TI TS5A3157 analog switch, as I didn’t have any Fairchild FST3157 on hand. I also used a hand-wound trifilar transformer on a BN2402-43 core instead of a nice transfomer from a company like Mini-Circuits. I drove the KISS mixer with +3 dBm from a Si5351. My measurement of IIP3 for this variant of the KISS mixer came out to +27 dBm, which seems reasonable given the poorer components I was using. Conversion loss was 7 dB. I’m going to try to measure it again with an actual FST3157 and a Mini-Circuits transformer in the near future, so it will be interesting to how much that will improve the IMD performance.

But honestly, I probably won’t need better than +27 dBm performance if this mixer is used in the CC1. Since the CC1 is meant to be a trail-friendly radio with modest current consumption, I don’t think I want to include the high current amplifier needed after the KISS mixer to get maximum performance out of it. Which is kind of a shame, but I figure that I should be able to keep RX current to around 50 to 60 mA and still have a receiver with better IMD performance than your typical level 7 diode ring mixer receiver. Stay tuned for more details on the CC1 front end as they are worked out in the NT7S shack.

10 Meter Contest!

Yes, it’s almost time for my favorite contest of the year: the ARRL 10 Meter Contest. Ever since I moved into the current QTH, it has been a bit of a tradition for me to operate the contest as SSB QRP only. By virtue of entering that least-liked category, it has been no problem to collect some modest wallpaper from this contest. That’s fun, but my real goal is to beat my previous score. Last year, I think I did fairly well with 7490 using a stock IC-718 and my ZS6BKW doublet. So this year, I’m going to have to step up my equipment game in order to have a good chance of besting last years score. I’m thinking some kind of gain antenna is going to be a must. If I can get a Moxon or small Yagi up around 20 feet and use an Armstrong rotor, that should help give me a little more oomph than last time. We’ll see if I can get something built in the less than 3 weeks before the contest.

Design, Homebrewing, QRP

A Prototype for a Si5351-Based SSB Rig

Now that I think I’ve fairly well determined that the Si5351 is suitable for use in a ham radio transceiver, it seems like time to put thought into action and actually try to build one. Ever since discovering that the Si5351 can output multiple independent clocks from one IC, I thought it would be neat to use one output as a VFO and a second as a BFO. As I showed with my Grabber RX prototype, this is certainly a viable thing to do.

One type of SSB transceiver architecture that I’ve been experimenting with in the NT7S shack is one using an unidirectional IF for both the receive and transmit signal paths, as opposed to the bidirectional designs seen in radios such as the BITX. The Lichen transceiver seen in Chapter 6 of Experimental Methods in RF Design is a nice example of such a radio. In past experiments, I have switched the VFO and BFO signal paths using analog switch ICs. But I realized that when using the Si5351, all you would need to do to implement this type of architecture is to connect, for example, the CLK0 output to the first mixer and the CLK1 output to the second mixer, then swap the frequencies on each CLK output when switching to transmit.

With that in mind, let me present the block diagram of my implementation of this below:

Si5351SSBBlockDiagram

The mixers are the ubiquitous 602/612 loved and hated by QRP homebrewers around the world. I’m not a huge fan of the 602, but it has a couple of things going for it in this application. First is that there are essentially two inputs and two outputs on the IC, which makes it very handy for this type of design. And while it has fairly atrocious intercept figures, it does reduce component count quite a bit. So you could consider this more of a cheap & cheerful radio for fun, not a design for work in seriously crowded conditions. The rest of the elements in the design are pretty much your standard circuits. Nothing too groundbreaking there. One thing I neglected to put on the diagram above is 10 dB attenuator pads on Si5351 outputs in order to get the ~3 Vpp output down to around the 300 mVpp that the 602 likes to see for oscillator drive.

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So here’s the beautiful ugly mess on a piece of copper clad. This was originally a CC1 prototype board, but I decided to cannibalize it for this SSB rig since it already had the microcontroller and Si5351A, and because I was feeling too lazy to start from scratch. The radio build only took a couple of half-day sessions in the shack, and worked mostly as expected right off the bat. The T/R VFO and BFO swapping scheme worked perfectly, needing only a few extra lines of code to implement in the already-existing code. I ended up making my first QSO with the rig (5 watts transmitter output) checking into the Noontime Net and getting a S7-S9 report from net control. The second QSO was last night with fellow Oregonian, Joel KB6QVI, who was kind enough to give me a sked in order to check out how the radio was working on the air. Finally, I had a very brief QSO with Dave AA7EE, who gave me an inciteful audio report although we had a poor propagation path between us. Right now, I’ve got it back off the air to tweak a few thing, such as the audio response in the mic amp, but expect to get it back in working order for use at Field Day.

Overall, I’m pretty happy with the direction this radio is proceeding. If I can get all of the bugs worked out, this could be a pretty potent design. Not in the performance category, but in the cost and component count sense. I’m seriously considering whether it may be feasible to do crowdfunding for a run of kits if I can nail down the design well enough. I have come to believe that the Si5351 could be a game changer for ham radio HF and VHF radio designs.

CC-Series, Design, Etherkit, Homebrewing, QRP, Random Musings

Stuff ‘n Things

As a mild winter turns into an unusually nice spring here in Beaverton (last week we had multiple days with clear skies and highs in the upper 70s °F), a young ham’s thoughts turn to portable activations, Field Day, SOTA, and the like. I’ve been looking forward to this summer for the opportunity to take the CC1 out in the field, but I may not get to be quite as adventurous as I hoped. Last winter, I slipped in a wet patch on the concrete in the garage and hurt my knee. As a typical guy, I didn’t go to the doctor to have it checked out, I decided to “walk it off”. It did heal, but not completely. So I finally gave in and saw my doctor about it a few weeks ago. She strongly suspects a torn meniscus, and ordered an MRI to confirm it. Unsurprisingly, my insurance company denied coverage on the MRI, instead expecting me to do a bunch of physical therapy based on at best a guess on what the problem is. Coming from a technical background such as mine, this boggles my mind. When you have a problem and you have the tools to make a measurement, you make the measurement to see what’s wrong, not just take a course of action based on a guess! I understand that money is the driving factor behind this decision, but it still seems like a waste of resources for both myself and the insurance company. Not to mention that I don’t have the faith in the efficacy of physical therapy that consensus medicine does.

So now I have to decide whether to shell out beaucoup bucks on physical therapy that probably won’t do anything other than siphon money from our family to their coffers. I’ve looked at many recommended loan options in the meantime and if that fails to miraculously heal the non-specific “knee pain” referred to by the insurance company, then I guess I get the privilege of paying for the MRI that I should have had in the first place.

I’m completely fed up with politics, so I have no desire for a political battle in my comments. I’m quite aware of the history of employer-provided health insurance in the US, and the effect of government distortions in the medical marketplace. There’s plenty of blame to be handed out all around, so let’s just leave it at that.

Anyway, I may not get to do any SOTA summits this year (except for perhaps a super-easy one such as Cooper Mountain right on the outskirts of Beaverton), but hopefully I can at least get out with the CC1 for portable ops to the park or while camping.

Speaking of the CC1, it’s at a bit of a lull in its development right now. I’m waiting for all of the beta builders to complete their construction so I can be sure that I have all of the major hardware bugs worked out (which looks tentatively promising right now). I still have quite a bit of firmware coding to work on, then I’ll be ready for the next (and hopefully last) PCB spin. With any luck, that should come in about 8-10 weeks.

In the meantime, I want to work on some side projects, and perhaps some opportunities to raise more capital to fund CC1 development. In that regard, I’ve been looking at a neat part recently. It’s a MEMS VCXO from SiTime called the SiT3808. What’s cool about this part is that it has linear voltage tuning, so that you don’t have the uneven tuning response like you would from a varactor-tuned VCXO. The phase noise on the spec sheet also looks very good. I ordered some samples for 7.030 MHz and 28.060 MHz and breadboarded them to test the frequency stability. It was nothing short of amazing. The 7.030 MHz part had a long term drift of 5 Hz in 1.5 hours. The 28.060 MHz part drifted only about 20 Hz in 2 hours. That’s pretty spectacular for CW use.

Since the 28 MHz part was so stable, I created a QRP transmitter for it by adding on a keying circuit and a couple of BD139 amplifiers. It outputs a very clean and stable 2 watt signal and has a tuning range of about 20 kHz. I also was fairly easily able to create a TX offset circuit, so that the transmitter can be paired with a direct conversion receiver (which I plan to do soon). Since tuning is linear, the offset is the same anywhere in the tuning range, unlike a typical varactor-tuned crystal oscillator.

I’ve been thinking about a way to introduce these parts to the ham community, since I don’t believe that I’ve seen them mentioned by any homebrewers or used in any kits. Last week on the qrp-tech listserv, K7QO proposed a group build of the venerable NE602/LM386 direct conversion receiver (this one from chapter 1 in Experimental Methods in RF Design). Since this design is so well known, it seems like a “remix” of this design using the SiT3808 as the local oscillator might be a fun way to spread the word about the product. I breadboarded a version with the 7.030 MHz SiT3808 sample, which you can see below (the SiT3808 is in the upper-right corner, and it obscured by the tuning pot wiring).

NE602/LM386 Prototype Receiver with SiT3808
NE602/LM386 Prototype Receiver with SiT3808

It works exactly as expected. Wide open band signals directly dumped down to baseband, and a nice, stable LO. This particular SiT3808 part number only tunes about 4 kHz, but I will be able to get parts with a greater tuning range. I’m consulting with SiTime right now about bulk pricing, and hopefully I’ll be able to do a kit run of at least 100 of these bad boys in the near future. Let me know in the comments if this is something that may interest you.

So that’s my big rant for the day. Stay tuned for further updates on all of these projects in the near future.

CC-Series, DX, Etherkit, QRP

The Thrill of QRP DX

Last night after the rest of the family was in bed, I was hacking on the CC1 firmware to add the BFO calibration routine so that I could get an accurate readout of my receive frequency. After successfully completing that task at the late hour of 0130, I decided to cruise 40 meters to see what was going on. Normally the best time for 40 meter DX at my QTH seems to be from about 0200 or so until sunrise, so I thought I might catch something.

Scanning below 7.030 MHz, I came across a very loud station. I figured it was somebody in CONUS, but decided to listen for an ID just in case. It actually turned out to be PJ2/K8ND in Curaçao. Not exactly rare DX, but it’s still quite a ways from my QTH and it’s a new one for me. So I figured I would take a crack at it with the CC1. Long story short, I set the CC1 in XIT mode and after an hour of trying, my 3 watt signal finally managed to crack the JA-wall. I was pretty excited! Not exactly a heroic snag in the annals of DXing, but it was a good one for me. My single HF antenna is a ZS6BKW only up about 30 feet, so busting a 40 meter pileup to a station 6000 km away made my night. My first DX contact on the CC1! Even better, I woke up to find that the FB op uploaded his log to LoTW immediately, and I’ve got +1 to my DXCC count.

QRP is fun!

Ham Culture, QRP, Sanctimonious Preaching

Inflection Point

Hello there. Yes, there is still life at this blog, although whether it is intelligent is still indeterminate. I feel awfully guilty about the lack of content for the blog in the last year, but I’ve been in a horrible time crunch since getting Etherkit off the ground. When it comes to making the choice between moving your small business forward so you can feed your family or writing a vanity blog post, I’m sure you know which will win pretty much every time. I have no intention for the blog to fade away, so I hope that you all will keep me in the feed reader so that when the time crunch eases up a bit, I can get back to blogging more often and can share some interesting stuff with you.

Anyway, on to the main point. For a fair bit of time now, I’ve had a vague impression that something was going a bit sour in the online QRP/homebrewer community. It never really surfaced consciously all that often, but I distinctly recall there being a general aura of discontent around my feelings about the state of the community. It has dawned on me that even though we have more communication channels available to us than ever before, we are becoming increasingly insular and fragmented, even within our own little sub-hobby. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this has happened while our choices of online communication channels has exploded.

I’m going to attempt to put some substance to this impression, with the hope that if I’m right about it, that maybe I’ve planted a seed for a way forward in one of my readers. This is probably going to come across as a bit of an Airing of Grievances, but that is not the point of this post at all. I will give you supporting data for my point of view, but I also intend to take a critical look at myself as well, as I’m sure that I’ve also made plenty of my own mistakes.

I believe that I got my first wake-up call a few months ago, when I learned that one of the most esteemed members of our group, Wes W7ZOI was hanging it up on his online amateur radio technical activities. Not only that, but whatever his motivation for withdrawing, it was also strong enough to make him pull all of his previous content off the web. This hit me like a punch in the gut. Wes has always been a most gracious virtual Elmer to many of us out here. He always seemed eager to pass on his enormous breadth of knowedge to those who asked for help. I have no knowledge of what transpired to change his mind about our community. The only public clue seems to be this quotation left behind on what’s left of his technical web page:

I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the stage of science, whatever the matter may be.

Whatever the catalyst was, Wes seems to be leaving us based on some negative experience. I can’t begin to tell you how much this troubles me. People like Wes are an extremely rare treasure in any community, not to mention one as small as ours. I can’t draw any firm conclusions based on the very limited information that we have, but it is not a good statement on the health of our community when such a luminary finds it worthwhile to withdraw, instead of continuing to engage.

The next data point I present is a blog post from John AE5X, published earlier this month. It’s a succinct entry, so I suggest that you click over and read it for yourself. In the case that you don’t, the Cliff’s Notes version of the post is a reflection on the changes in the QRP community in the last decade. Some of the relevant ideas that I’d like to point out are:

QRP-L was alive with real content. People were talking about the latest kit they built and what they were doing with it. The QRP contests and events were well attended, providing further topics for discussion on QRP-L. Norcal 40A’s, SST’s, great rigs from Small Wonder Labs and Oak Hills Research could be heard, worked and talked about.

There was diversity among QRPers too – the hang-a-wire-in-a-tree gang and the QRP DXers all rubbed shoulders on QRP-L. As a result, all QRPers were exposed to various aspects of the 5-watt realm.

and

On the negative side, QRP-L is little more than a small circle of the same dozen people making 90% of the posts that occur there with the real meat of QRP technical discussion taking place on a specific rig’s dedicated YahooGroup. Ditto for the operational aspects of QRP: SOTA and IOTA have their own forums, leaving QRP-L relegated to sharing space in the dusty bins with newsgroups.

and

I am more thankful than I can describe at the exposure I received to ideas, techniques and equipment on the old QRP-L. That doesn’t happen anymore with the real brain power having been sucked away to specific forums.

John hits the nail on the head. I started being active in QRP a bit more a decade ago, right at the same time about which John is writing. And my memory is exactly the same as his. There was an excitement, vitality, and cross-pollination that made QRP-L nearly indispensable to both the QRP operator and the QRP homebrewer. QRP-L was pretty much the only game in town, at least on the online frontier. Today, it’s a pale shadow of its former self. Nothing new is happening. Hardly any new blood is joining (or if they are, they are not speaking up). At least that was my last impression of it, because I rarely even look at it any more. I’m still subscribed to QRP-L (and a handful of other listservs), but I admit that I hardly even open up the Mailing List folder in my mail application any more. The amount of worthwhile content just doesn’t seem worth it any more in exchange for the time spent sifting through the flame wars, pissing contests, and endlessly regurgitated arguments.

I don’t mean to pick on QRP-L, but I think it’s very illustrative of the issues we face. Almost all of the best and brightest has left, for one reason or another. And yes, people have been bemoaning the death of QRP-L for years. I bring it up because I think it’s a leading indicator of the state of our online community. One of the most important statements in John’s post is where he identifies the brain drain to all of the tiny little niche forums in our already-small sub-hobby. The QRP-L exodus happened in earnest years ago, but I think we are now starting to see the second order effects of this phenomena. We have scores of Yahoo Groups, forums, and social networks for our specific little area of interest within QRP or homebrewing or for our favorite rigs or vendors, but we don’t come together under the larger banner of QRP any longer, in any way. I suspect that this gets us a bit locked in to our little corners of the ‘net. I don’t know about you, but I’m finding myself having an increasingly harder time managing all of my different communities of interest. Which tends to make me just throw my hands up and ignore large swathes of those communities at times.

This brings us to the new kid on the block: social media. The big dogs on the block are of course Facebook and Twitter, with smaller networks like Google+ also getting some play in the ham communities. I’ve never used Facebook for a variety of reasons, but I’ve been on Twitter for a few years now and did dabble in Google+ for a bit, so I can speak from experience on those two. The nice thing about the social media networks is that you do break free from that self-imposed ghetto mentioned above. Once you get a well established network, you tend to have connections to all kinds of different hams.

But that blessing can also be a curse. The reason for this is the different expectations that different hams tend to have with each other on these networks. A fair number of people expect that if you have a Twitter account with ham radio as your primary focus, you should only talk about ham radio. Likewise, I found that a number of hams on Google+ did not like it if you posted anything non-ham related to all of your “circles” (“circles” are your self-defined groupings for the people in your network). It’s a fair point of view, but it isn’t the one that I have subscribed to. I am person with different interests and I just don’t have it in me to manage different social media accounts for each of my interests. Nor do I expect others to curate their output to cater to my desires.

The problem is that as much as I try to be tolerant of the diversity of other people’s interests and ideas on the social networks, I’m not always successful. Admittedly, I unfollowed a few dozen Twitter accounts (not all hams, but definitely some) right after the last election due to either incessant gloating or whining. Probably not my finest moment, but I guess election fatigue got to me. On the flip side, while I don’t think I have been a flaming partisan most of the time, I didn’t leave my feed politics-free either. I have no doubt that I have annoyed my share of followers and drove them away due to my politics (especially since I’m a devotee of a political ideal that is not very popular).

My point in bringing this up is not to whine, but to contrast the social networks with the “old-school” communities such as QRP-L and web forums. It seems that you have two different extremes, neither of which lend themselves very well to the type of online QRP community which would be nice to have (at least in my view): knowledgeable, open, free-flowing, fun, and mostly on-topic but not on lockdown.

One other point I’d like to bring up that applies to all of us, regardless of what communication medium we use, is our etiquette. I’m sorry, I’m not trying to be a nanny, I know we’re all grown adults. But I would also bet that the majority of us are on the left side of the bell curve when it comes to emotional intelligence (me included), which means that we are more apt to give and receive offense at times when we should not. For example, in my “career” in the QRP world, I can think of at least three different times when I’ve deeply offended very prominent people in the QRP world. And I can say that each time that I was notified of this offense, I was completely taken by surprise. Without getting into details, I’ve done and said some incredibly boneheaded things. Not because I was trying to troll the QRP stars, but just because I didn’t think through the consequences of my words or actions, or didn’t clearly enough communicate my intentions. Likewise, I’ve been wounded by the words of others, who meant no harm, but I didn’t realize that until later. (We’ll leave aside the issue of the intentional jerk, for whom this essay would mean nothing anyway)

All of this butthurt really damages our relations and breaks down the community, perhaps more than anything else. Again, I’m not trying to be your mommy, but I do ask that you sleep on the stridently-worded rebuttal to the post which offends you, or that you forgive the newbie question that might seem stupid or obvious. I don’t know for certain, but there’s a decent chance that something like this is what caused a number of our best QRPers to leave the online QRP world. Let’s not shoot ourselves in the foot any longer, eh?

If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl.

—H.L. Mencken

Why have I rambled on for so long about all of this? I’d like to see some of that old magic recaptured. When I designed the Willamette DC transceiver and organized the group build on the now-defunct qrp-l.org listserv, I had one of the best experiences of my ham career. I’d love to do something like that again. But I don’t know where or how. I’m pretty sure that the current QRP-L would not be the place, and definitely not on a web forum like QRZ.com or eHam.com. I have the capacity to host my own forum (I could even stick it under my Etherkit forums), but it would be too insulated, as mentioned above. I have some ideas for some simpler group project builds that I’m itching to get out there, but I’m honestly at a loss of where to present them. I’d love to reach a wide audience of QRPers. Where would that be?

So if you’re still around, you’re probably thinking “wrap it up already!” OK, I appreciate that you had the fortitude to stick around to the end of this diatribe, so I’ll get to the point. I think I’ve outlined an issue that needs to be addressed, but I don’t have a solution. But I think I may know some elements that will be part of the solution. We need some common meeting ground like that has the same “melting pot” formula of the old QRP-L. With the withdrawal of some of our sharpest minds (and the loss of others as silent keys), we seem to be a bit adrift of leadership. The old guard is departing. Not that we need people trying to take charge and give orders. But we do need new thought leaders and innovators; people to inspire by example and by word.

I am quite fond of QRPARCI and all that they do for our community (especially QQ and FDIM), but I think it could also use a bit of a kick in the pants. A rejuvenation effort brought about via ARCI could be very effective, if done correctly. I’d hate to see it get stagnant and not take advantage of the great resource that it has: it’s large number of QRPer members.

Hopefully I’ve given you some serious ideas to chew on, and with any luck, just might inspire one or two of you to make a positive change to help our community. I’m not one who will be any good in trying to rally others to a QRP renewal, but I hope that I can at least reach out to one who is.

Now on a much lighter note, my next blog post will be back to my normal fare! I’ll give you a peek at the little group project idea that I’ve been working on. Who knows, maybe we can get this going somehow.

Homebrewing, QRP

SSB In A Box

Unnamed SSB QRP Rig

For the first time in quite a while, I’ve taken a project from start to a complete finish in an enclosure. I wanted to have my prototype SSB QRP rig ready to take with me to Salmoncon, so I busted a move this weekend to tweak the last bits of the circuitry to my liking, build an enclosure, and get it properly mounted. You can see the results to the left. I have an assortment of Ten Tec enclosures on hand, but none of them were large enough to accommodate the bulky circuit board that I used, so I had to fabricate my own out of copper clad based on the WA4MNT instructions (such as AA7EE did with his wonderful CC-20 beta build). I would say that my mechanical construction skills are average at best, so it’s not the nicest looking enclosure, but I guess it’s OK for a first try (the perfectionist in me sees lots of flaws). The two-tone blue and grey doesn’t look too bad from a distance. Regardless of the aesthetics, the final enclosure is quite sturdy and will work well to keep the radio safe.

SSB Rig Guts

Here to the right, you can see the insides of the radio (sorry for the crummy photo, it was taken with my phone). The mainboard is the one laying horizontally and filling most of the room in the enclosure. To the left of the mainboard is the microcontroller/DDS board, standing vertically. Crammed in right in front of that, is the 4-digit LED frequency display and all of the other controls. Unseen and in the top cover, is a 1 watt, 8 ohm speaker. The LM380 AF amplifier can easily drive it to room-filling audio.

Here are some preliminary specs so you can get some idea of the performance:

  • Tuning range: 14.000 to 14.350 MHz (DDS)
  • IF BW: 2.3 kHz (3 dB), 6 crystal ladder filter
  • Current consumption: ~150 mA RX (not optimized for current yet)
  • TX Power: ~8 watts @ +13.7 VDC
  • MDS, IP3, etc.: not measured yet, see below

I haven’t measured any of the important RX specifications yet, but I’ll give you some subjective operating impressions. Compared to my IC-718, the sensitivity is very close. Maybe a few dB down but not much. Noise seems pretty good, a bit better than the IC-718. A rough guess of dynamic range and intermod distortion is that it is decent as well. Haven’t heard much in the way of distortion products or “crunching” in the pileups that I’ve tuned through. There’s no AGC, so you can listen to some pretty weak DX signals, then have the local guy replying really blast through but sound relatively clean. Since the architecture is based on ADE-1 mixers and low-noise MMIC IF amplifiers, it’s what you would expect. There’s no preamp, but that doesn’t seem to be much of a handicap on 20 meters. In fact, I think it would probably be counterproductive, especially since you probably aren’t working any stations that far into the mud that you need a preamp to hear them.

As I previously alluded to, my mechanical skills are a bit suspect at times, so I needed to have a test QSO with the radio once it was all buttoned up to make sure that it was working correctly. So I did a bit of tuning around at about 9 PM local and heard K2L, the South Carolina station for the Original 13 Colonies special event station, thumping my speaker off at well over S9. He was working stations at an easy clip with fairly short exchanges, so it was perfect for a quick test. I snagged him on the first call with an honest 59 report (at least I think it was honest…I heard him giving other stations lower reports so I assume I was really a 59) with approximately 8 watts PEP into my ZS6BKW at 30 feet. Mission accomplished!

It will be fun to take this rig to Salmoncon for some camping portable operation. I’ve never attended a Salmoncon before, but I think any of the attendees can use the special K7S callsign, so maybe I can do some CQing on 20 meters SSB with the short call and attract some stations. We won’t be up there until Friday evening, so I think we’ll miss the SOTA runs, but hopefully I can also get the radio out to a SOTA peak near here when I return. It might be too ambitious, but before Salmoncon I would also like to finish a 40 meter CW rig based on my Clackamas design that I entered into the 2010 FDIM contest. We’ll see if I can actually pull that off.

Stay tuned for more news on Salmoncon as it gets closer and hopefully I can get a video of the SSB rig on YouTube so that you can see it in action for yourself soon.

CC-Series, Operating, QRP

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.

Operating, QRP

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.