Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Ham Who Slept Through Field Day

For a moment last week I considered tracking down the local Field Day operation, which turned out to be the HOTARC effort in Hewitt Park a couple of miles from my QTH. Then I stepped outside into the 109° heat and quickly reassessed my priorities. My desire to avoid heat stroke narrowly outweighed any urge to shout "Six Bravo North Texas" into a mic for extended periods. I decided then to operate 1D from the home station, at least help out the true believers by handing out a few QSO points.

Instead, I took a nap. Maybe next year...

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Olivia Si! Windoze NO!

I worked Olivia for the first time last night, replying to a CQ on 40m just around midnight CST, then answering a call after signing with the first station. I had a pretty good idea how this mode operates from several QSOs I've monitored on 20m, but didn't realize that there are calling channels and other protocols that are followed. Tnx to VE7NBQ for pointing me to the HF Link web site for more info on this.

The best thing about Olivia is that it looks to be a true ragchewing mode, unlike PSK31 which is one boring macro-centric QSO after the next. Olivia trades speed for damn near 100% perfect error-free print so you actually have the time to type ahead on the fly; this facilitates the all-but-forgotten conversation, long since replaced by fast callsign/RST exchanges and the aforementioned QSO by Macro -- perhaps we should we call such exchanges QSMs instead of QSOs since most of the people you work on PSK simply repeat everything they've already sent to the station before you. I've seen none of that on Olivia; it's clearly the digital mode of choice for hams who have something to say.

So now I've conquered two of the 'new' modes. However, I have yet to conquer the needlessly complex operating system known to many as Windows, but known to me affectionately as "this f--king third rate piece of s--t so-called operating system." Call me a Mac bigot, but I'm a Mac bigot for a reason. I honestly spend about 6 minutes a year troubleshooting Mac OS X, and that's in a bad year. With Windows, there's some issue or another to deal with every other time I turn it on -- loss of sound card settings, inability to see the K3 on the COM port assigned to my USB adapter, vanishing drivers, application lockups just as a DX station is returning my CQ... all this has happened to me in the course of the one week, and this is a fairly new PC that had a fresh installation of WinXP put on it before it entered the shack.

Now I understand that some people actually like tinkering with their computers. God bless them, they're entitled to treat their computer as a hobby. I, however, have no more desire to tinker with my PC than I have to tinker with my electric toothbrush, power drill or vacuum cleaner -- they're tools, nothing more. I just want the damn things to work when I turn 'em on. The computer is a tool for me, not a hobby. I've lived through the dark ages of both DOS and Mac OS 6 through 9 (and, to be fair, Mac OS X 10.0), I've had enough of the constant man-vs-machine struggle to get the damned computer to do what I want. Sticking with Macs all these years has finally paid dividends, OS X 10.5 has been bulletproof for me, as has 10.3 and 10.4 before it; Microsoft, on the other hand, has merely replaced the IRQ headaches of DOS with the driver and DLL headaches of their "modern" OS.

There's one genius on the QRZ forums with a sig line that says "Macs are toys, Get a PC!" Whatever. This is the 21st century, the OS wars are over and the winner is... The Internet. I don't care what OS I'm running anymore, and neither do most people as long as it works. Except for a couple of ham radio apps that I like, my Mac can do anything my PC can do, and it does it elegantly, effortlessly, and without the constant headaches.

Unfortunately, with HRD and DM780 I have found logging and digital mode software that does everything I want. Plus, I'll eventually use some sort of contest logging program for which the choices for Mac are virtually nonexistent. Therefore I must deal with Windoze much as I've done for years at work. Lucky me.

Maybe Windoze 7 will be better. LOL!


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

PSK31 Progress

I've made the move to USB -- I had an M-Audio JamLab USB I/O sitting around picked it up a few years ago to patch my guitar into Garage Band. I hadn't thought about using it for PSK31 audio until now. Downloaded latest XP driver, switched the cables over to it and saw improved results immediately -- now the waterfall shows a much cleaner signal than I was getting when running the RX audio directly into the soundcard, confirming my suspicion that my soundcard is crap and a dedicated USB I/O device -- even a cheapo single-channel box like the JamLab -- would greatly improve things. My inner geek is smiling.

The JamLab appears to be replaced by the Transit Hi-Resolution Mobile USB Audio Interface, apparently the same device with a new label.

I'm a little concerned with the range of level adjustment -- with the control panel and K3 output levels set at 100%, I'm getting about 20-25% input level in DM780. It seems to be enough, though. Also have to up the K3's Line In gain to 30 (up from around 8) in order to tickle the ALC to 4 bars as suggested by others on the Elecraft reflector.

Still getting noise from the outside world, not sure what to do about that. It seems to be intermittent and shows up on the waterfall as two fairly broad (300 Hz) stripes centered around 1325Hz and 1950Hz when tuned to 14070.0 kHz. They are weak enough that they disappear when a strong signal appears in the passband and the AGC drops the gain, but if a weak signal is anywhere near the noise it's tough to pull them out.

I've been considering the MFJ-1025 phasing noise filter with an outdoor sensing antenna; not cheap ($180) and not sure it will help on this particular noise source but MFJ's 30-day return policy makes it worth a try.

After running the K3 wide open for a few days I now find myself crunching down the bandwidth of the K3 to a narrow (200 Hz) passband and centering it on the desired signal in order to reject adjacent strong signals and improve copy of weak signals. The K3's combination of 8-pole 400Hz roofing and DSP bandwidth filters are simply awesome for picking a single signal out of a crowded band.

By keeping Filter Preset I set wide open (4.0 kHz in DATA A mode) and Filter Preset II set to 200 Hz, I can jump to the narrow setting quickly when I spot something on the waterfall and shift the passband until it's centered on the signal. It would be cooler than penguin turds if DM780/HRD would set the K3 width and shift automatically to zero in on an incoming signal with the click of a button, but since this isn't a K3-specific program I'm not hopeful this will ever work it's way into a future version.

So now just barely 4 days into PSK31, and with little effort, I've worked 7 DXCC entities (8, if you count the USA, which I don't...):
  • CO - Cuba
  • FK - New Caledonia
  • KH6 - Hawaii
  • SP - Poland
  • TG - Guatemala
  • UT - Ukraine
  • VE - Canada
Moving along...

Sunday, June 21, 2009

PSK: I Love You

I'm now firmly ensconced in the 21st century, having successfully made my first QSOs in PSK31 mode. Two simple audio cables from the Dell's soundcard direct to the K3, a little bit of diddling with Digital Master 780, and we're off and rolling. First QSO was with WU6X in California who answered my CQ, followed by another with TG9AHM in Guatemala whose CQ I answered. All this with 30w -- incredible.

I've been decoding PSK31 ever since I got the K3, the rig does this internally and scrolls the received text across the LCD. It just never worked very well so I didn't believe all the hype about PSK31. But when I first fired up DRM780, I was shocked to see near perfect copy from signals that were barely visible on the waterfall display. Then I discovered the SuperBrowser feature... Holy smoke. I can see I'll be spending a lot of time in this mode.

Receiving and decoding PSK31 signals was easy, but getting the K3 to transmit took a bit of poking. First, I needed two audio cables (1/8"-to-1/8") -- I had one in the junk box with stereo jack on one end and mono on the other. This worked fine for the receive audio. Then I drove to Radio Shack to pick up another for the transmit line only to find an empty store with a For Lease sign in the window. Great. So I went over to the other side of the mall to Best Buy, but they had no cables with an 1/8" jack of any sort. Returning home in a rather pissy mood, I dug some adapters in the box to convert a 1/4"-to-RCA cable into another 1/8"-1/8". I hate adapters, but it'll have to do for now. Cable adventure over, I spent the next 45 minutes transmitting into the dummy load, making adjustments, tweaking the config parameters to get the audio into the K3's Line In jack and finding the optimum input levels.

In retrospect I'm thankful I didn't rush out and buy an external soundcard device, as the K3 I/O ports are fully isolated and this configuration seems to be working just fine. I may still add one later because I'm sure the soundcard in this Dell isn't very cutting edge, but for now my cash is better burned on something I need more (RAM, ground rods, beer...).

On the other side of the coin, one of the unintended consequences of Digital Master 780 is that with the waterfall I now can see all the noise I'm picking up.... but I'll save that rant for another day.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Quote of the Day

From the Elecraft reflector (I won't further embarrass the person who said this by identifying him):
"I still for the life of me can't understand why the K3 didn't come with a USB port instead of the outdated com port. That is one reason I have not bought one yet."
Really? A USB<->Serial adapter costs, what, $30? This is what's keeping you from buying one of the best performing amateur HF transceivers ever designed?

I'm speechless. Almost.

Other than a possible speed advantage -- and I say "possible" because there is no practical need for anything faster than a standard RS232C connection to control the K3 -- what friggin' difference does it make? Perhaps if the radio ported audio I/O through its serial connection... but it doesn't.

Besides, I've never seen a PC that didn't have a serial port, but there are plenty of computers still in use sans USB. And while I certainly wouldn't mind a USB port on my K3 in addition to the regular serial port, the idea of its ommission being a deal-breaker is beyond silly.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


Worked UA3 and LY on 20m late Monday (early Tuesday UTC), my first HF QSOs since moving to Texas. Bands were awful but there seemed to be an opening over the pole to Eastern Europe, as I heard a few other stations in there as well; ER4DX was 20 over but didn't hear me. Later on Tuesday & Wednesday I worked TI, XE, KH6, VE and ES. Only 93 to go for DXCC from W5-land!

The Tarheel has been great so far. It's noisy (as verticals tend to be) but it's hearing stations that I'm not hearing at all with my stealth wire on the RX Ant input. I'm thinking now that I should have added the Ameritron SDC-201 controller to facilitate band switching, but for now I'm using the MFJ analyzer to tune the antenna without keying the K3.

Ham Radio Deluxe has become a true extension of my K3, operating without it is like attending a formal without pants. I finally dug out the old Dell (2.0 GHz P4 with 512MB RAM) and got it running, completely dedicated to amateur radio operations. Linda brought home a newer Dell from work with a 15" LCD monitor; not sure what processor is in this one but it isn't important -- what I'm using now is adequate, it's already set up with Wi-Fi card, HRD, and some other ham software, and I dread the thought of having to reconfigure another PC. (As a Mac guy, doing anything with Windows is torture. I think we should make Gitmo detainees administer a Windows network; they'll be begging for waterboarding before the end of the second day.)

So with the PC up and running, I had to clear off a bunch of stuff from my desk to make room for the monitor. Should have done this long ago as most of the stuff is seldom used (if ever). I removed the second '515 along with all the little dust-gathering peripherals to make room for the LCD and moved the mic boom over. Now I can actually see the K3, the HRD display, the power/SWR meter at the same time while speaking into a mic and typing without moving my head from side to side.

Now I need only figure out what to do with all the shit that is scattered all over the shack...

Getting RF into my audio chain, so I have to turn the Multi-RX off when transmitting and use headphones fed directly from the K3. Some sleuthing is in order; methinks it is a station ground issue because... well, there ain't none.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Tarheel 200A-HP Antenna: Installation & Initial Tests

Issue One: How do I mount this thing? My first thought was to hammer a 1" galvanized steel pipe into the ground. Then I remembered this heavy duty speaker stand that I scavenged out of the dumpster at the music store a few years ago. It's one of those stands that is designed to elevate a PA monitor; the handle normally used to raise and lower the cabinet to the desired height was broken off but it was otherwise in good shape. I had no idea what I was going to do with it but I figured someday I would adapt it to one of my hobbies -- maybe a telescope mount or a camera tripod. It sat around in my boiler room in NJ for years, then almost got put in the trash when we moved but at the last minute I threw it into the U-Haul. I'm glad I did.

It never occurred to me to use it as an antenna mount until the HamCom show where I saw a similar setup at the Buddipole booth. That rang a bell in my head, so I dug it out of the garage Saturday night. The upper mast is 1", exactly the size needed for the MT-1 mounting bracket and ground radial plate. And though the mast cannot be raised or lowered from it's broken position, it turned out to be the perfect height to mount the MT-1 with the ground plate just a few inches below. This puts the plate about 3.5" above the ground, which means the ten supplied 9' radials droop down before extending outward.

The antenna stands over 15' tall when fully extended for 75/80m. I'm a little concerned about the top-heaviness of the whole thing; wish the mounting bracket U-bolts would fit around the lower section so I could remove the gear assembly and top mast to get the center of gravity closer to the Earth's core. It's not going to tip over all by itself, it's fairly sturdy, but I fear a good blast of Texas-style sever weather might topple it. I'm considering some sandbags on the tripod legs to hold it in place. At least it's portable enough to move indoors or lay down if the wind picks up. While not an ideal permanent mounting solution, it works quite well as a temporary/emergency/portable/field day antenna mounting system. I may eventually move to the pipe-in-ground method; for now, however, this gets me on the air.

While mounting the antenna to the MT-1 bracket I had a bitch of a time fastening the upper half-bracket. Even threading the lock nut on one side just enough to grab the screw, I could not get the screw on the other side through the bracket enough to fasten the other nut. I tried numerous times until the nut got dropped and went bouncing off into the tall grass. I finally just fully tightened the one side and left it for another day -- it's not going to be going down a highway at 80MPH so it's good enough for now. I'd ultimately like to adapt some sort of cam-lever quick release for this upper bracket to facilitate quick break down.

Assembly completed, I did some initial testing with SWR analyzer and found the 200A to tune well on most of the bands I care about -- 1.2:1 or better on 40m through 17m, about 1.25:1 on 15m, and a hair under 2:1 on 75m. With the inductor fully retracted the antenna was resonant on 22.9 MHz, well under 1.2:1; I'm guessing I will need a shorter whip to tune 12m and 10m, which I'll worry about when the sunspot cycle perks up.

Getting the control cable and coax to shack is going to be my next mission. Right now I have it coming in through the window but despite stuffing bubble wrap into the gap I'm still getting bugs working their way into the house. The MFJ feed-through panel is pricey, so I might try to fabricate something similar as soon as I can get to home depot to buy a 2x4 and a circular saw (I left way too many tools in NJ...).

With the 200A hooked to the K3 I'm hearing many more stations that are weak or inaudible with the RX wire antenna; other stations that are strong with the RX antenna are 10dB or more stronger with the 200A. KH6IB was S9+20dB on 20m but I couldn't break through the small pileup he was working through before he started calling for mobile stations only -- even though others who were most definitely not mobile still called him, I followed his instructions and held off. Finally I shut it down since I'm exhausted and need to hit the sack. First QSO will have to wait...

HamCom 2009

Made the trip as planned to Plano this morning to the HamCom show. After doing the math I deduced that this is the first big ham radio show I've been to since Dayton in 1993. Much has changed in 16 years.

First thing upon arrival I sought out Tarheel Antennas, hell bent on getting an antenna before doing anything else. Had a talk with Gaylon WBØW and settled on the Model 200A-HP package with a ground radial kit and an extra 50' length of control cable. This lightened my net worth by some $600. Stuffed the whole lot into the car then went back to see the rest of the show. Grabbed the adapter cable to mate my Heil Classic 5 with the K3, and found the BNC-to-screw terminal adapter that I needed for the KX1. Shopping spree completed, I did my walkabout; The Best Damn Wife Ever™ parked herself in a chair with her Kindle and waited patiently as I ran around like a 5 year old at Chuck E. Cheese's.

I was happy to finally get my paws on some of the newer rigs like the Icom IC7800/7700/7600 and Yaesu FT-9000/2000 and spin the knobs and push some buttons. All of these radios had front panels that remind me of an instrument panel in a 747 -- lotsa' stuff going on. The K3 by comparison is minimalist and elegant, not that I would mind having any of these rigs in the shack. The 7600 was especially nice as it might be something I could afford someday, though I'd be hard pressed to replace the K3 with anything from Japan.

Elecraft had a booth, showing their new W2 wattmeter and K144XV 2m Module for the K3. Eric WA6HHQ was off giving a presentation so I didn't get to grill him about the lack of AM Synchronous Detection in the K3 as promised. Almost bought a K1 kit, but held off because I already spent way more than I should have already on the above mentioned , and also because I know I'll never use it. But I just have itch to melt some solder and wind some toroids.

K144XV installed in K3

Sadly Ten-Tec was absent from the show. Too bad, I really wanted to have a look at the Omni VII and Orion II.

And then there was Flex Radio. Wow. Just... wow.

Flex Radio Systems. Did I mention, Wow?

I can imagine one of these in the shack someday...

Friday, June 12, 2009

Dallas Lankford & NRD-525/535 Mods

The ARRL Contest Update for May 13, 2009 included a mention of Dallas Lankford and a link to a collection of his writings on various technical topics, including several pieces on the JRC NRD-525 receiver. This struck me with a blast of nostalgia.

Though we never met, Dallas and I had exchanged letters (not emails, mind you, but real, honest-to-God handwritten letters!) when I worked for JRC about filter modifications to the NRD-525/535. Almost all of it went straight over my head as I am merely an appliance operator compared to Dallas, but with his help I managed to successfully install some Collins torsional mechanical filters in my NRD-535 by changing out a bunch of the surface-mount components that comprised the filters' input and output impedance matching networks. It was a big accomplishment for me, even though I had to butcher up a perfectly good CFH-36 filter board...

Don't try this at home, kids.

I lost touch with Dallas after I left JRC, but I have copies of all of his letters in my file cabinet, a reminder of a great gentleman and maestro of the radio arts. The above linked files are required reading for anyone who wants to dig into his NRD-525.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Sun

From NW7US on the CQ Magazine web site.
How Credible Are These "Experts"?
How much credibility should we grant to the panel of solar researchers and scientists that again releases a speculative prediction of the new Solar Cycle (the 24th since accurate solar cycle records have been kept)? Panel chairman Doug Biesecker of the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center states, "If our prediction is correct, Solar Cycle 24 will have a peak sunspot number of 90, the lowest of any cycle since 1928 when Solar Cycle 16 peaked at 78."

NASA's lead representative on the panel, Dean Pesnell of the Goddard Space Flight Center, adds, "It turns out that none of our models were totally correct... The sun is behaving in an unexpected and very interesting way."

What I find entertaining is the self-importance prevalent in the solar science community, by both professional and some amateur participants. Pesnell states the obvious, "In our professional careers, we've never seen anything quite like it."

Yes, how many solar cycles can one experience during their professional life? The average cycle lasts between 11 and 12 years. But the Sun is millions of years old. In my view, it is pretty arrogant to postulate that mankind has any real understanding and handle on what the Sun might do next. Pesnell, again: "Go ahead and mark your calendar for May 2013, but use a pencil."

If none of the models are totally correct, how are they making this current prediction with such dismal expectations? I'm not holding my breath in favor of supporting any of the predictions at this point.
Me neither. Just three short years ago we were told by "experts":
Scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, have declared a breakthough in understanding our Sun's 11-year activity cycle. And they are using their new model to make predictions: that the next solar cycle will be 30 to 50 percent stronger than the one now ending, and that it will begin 6 to 12 months late.
Now they say, "Never mind." Oooooooh-kay... Next we'll be told that it's all due to solar cooling, which of course is caused by global warming.