Friday, July 24, 2009

Overheard on The Intertubes

"This discussion is about SDR. A K3 is a firmware defined radio not a SDR."

Saturday, July 18, 2009


Sadly, the Logbook of the World QSLs are not coming in nearly as fast as the QSOs, with just 21 QSLs received and 8 DXCC confirmed on LoTW out of 149 QSOs uploaded. By comparison, my delivered 51 QSLs and 15 DXCC with the same 149 of my QSOs uploaded. Not a scientific study, but there it is. I wonder if it might have something to do with all the contortions and hoop-jumping the ARRL makes one do before being granted access to LoTW. On this note, I submitted a LoTW review on eHam, reprinted here for your reading enjoyment:
I share most of the bad experiences others have already stated. My initial attempt to register for LoTW ended in failure. I'm still not sure why. A few years later I tried again with better results. Still, the first time signing and uploading a file was confusing, and adding a certificate for my previous callsign left me scratching my head when no postcard came in the mail (I later realized that the postcard thing only applied to the first callsign certificate). In the end, I got it working and have had no further issues.

Now that I understand the system, I find it works as advertised. I upload new loggings regularly, painlessly, and with little effort. It's clear that the process in and of itself is not complicated; it's simply a case of really, really crappy instructions.

The ARRl web site has a "Getting Started" page with step-by-step instructions to walk you through the process of requesting a certificate and validating it with the password you receive from the postcard you receive in the mail. Then... nothing. It just stops short, with no info on creating or exporting the ADIF file, or using TSQL to sign and upload the file. Digging around further on the ARRL web site, I found and watched a PowerPoint slideshow that filled in the blanks. Only then was I able to put all the pieces together. Why all the information in the PowerPoint file isn't available on the "Getting Started" page is beyond comprehension.

In practice LoTW works like a charm once you get into the groove of things. I can appreciate the ARRL's desire for strong encryption methods to prevent fraud -- I use as well as LoTW and while I enjoy the simplicity of it, I have received (and rejected) a few incoming QSLs from stations that I did not work; someone less scrupulous would merely have accepted the QSLs and padded their DXCC total without actually working the DX. At least with LoTW there can be no doubt that the DX was actually worked.

I also like the fact that I can get quick confirmation of QSOs and apply them to DXCC and WAS much sooner than it would otherwise take me to collect all the cards via snail mail and the bureau. I still send out "real" QSL cards as I enjoy collecting them, but for award purposes LoTW is a really great tool.

However, the League needs to address the fact that they have needlessly complex instructions for a relatively simple process. The number of people expressing anguish over registration and giving up on the system should be a wake-up call. I'm a fairly bright computer professional, and I'm sure everyone else complaining about LoTW's complexity and difficulties are fairly bright as well. If so many of have had trouble getting started, I think it's fair to say there's something wrong with the way it's being explained to us.
And that's it in a nutshell: If it's a chore to use, hams won't use it, especially the 'modern' ham who expects everything to happen with the push of a button. LoTW's three-step process of exporting the log file from your logging program, signing it with the TSQL app, and uploading it from the ARRL web site is not the kind of elegance and simplicity people expect from an ostensibly technology-driven hobby like amateur radio. And we won't even talk about the registration process.

By comparison, every QSO I log gets uploaded to by Ham Radio Deluxe automatically and transparently with no additional effort on my part. Yes, I know eQSL doesn't have the crypto-security of LoTW and the possibility of QSL fraud is increased. Who cares? It's a friggin' hobby; these are QSLs, not ICBM launch codes.

Then there's the 20th century method of QSLing: snail mail. So far I've only received 5 QSL cards in the mail, all from US stations. It's going to be a long, long road to DXCC and WAS.

I'm filling out my outgoing cards as soon as possible after each QSO, it's much more efficient than doing a hundred of them at a time. Now my first batch is ready to go out. All of the US cards of course are going direct, and more than a couple of them need SASEs according to the worked stations' QRZ listings. I have about 25 DX cards that I'm sending direct for those countries which I've never confirmed, and I'm including a self-addressed return envelope and $1 (or $2 if so requested by the station on QRZ). I'll send the rest of the DX cards via outgoing bureau because the cost of international postage has become obscene since the last time I did this; as bad as I want my DXCC award there's no way I can spend upwards of $100 a month to mail QSL cards. All told, this first pile of outgoing cards is going to cost me around $85 to send out

My HRD log file with all of my old N2HIE and WW2PT contacts was fubar'd pretty well and good with the Country listings wrong for about half of them, so I went through the log line by line and corrected everything in order to get a definite DXCC count (64 countries confirmed out of 112 worked, although this excludes several contest logs that never made it into my master logbook file and have since been lost). More importantly I've found a ton of DXCC entities that I never sent cards to, so I'm hoping these guys are packrats like me and have kept their logs from the late 80's and early 90's...

Julian G4ILO writes about his PSK31 pet peeve: hams who ask -- or rather demand -- that you don't QSL them via eQSL or LoTW. I've noted this phenomenon as well, both on the air and on QRZ. I also see some people on QRZ ask we ONLY use eQSL and/or LoTW and say they do not want paper cards. I remember back when working the station was the hard part; now, it's figuring out how to QSL them. Frankly, I love the cards, it is a tradition that I don't want to see end. I will send cards to stations that I've already got via LoTW. Whatever floats your boat.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Ultimate DXpedition

Oh, the stuff that comes across on the DX cluster sometimes...

Now that is a great QTH, but I don't know if I'd find much time for operating -- assuming, of course, that the locals are the friendly and fun sort (as opposed to the angry ones you find in the East Village).

Funny, though... I always assumed the mythical Island of Lesbos would be down in the Amazon region, not Greece. I learn something new every day.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

IARU Contest: Nolo Contendere

Much as I wanted to give a wholehearted effort in yesterday's IARU HF Championship, I was only to operate for less than 2 hours mid-afternoon. I still managed 6 new-for-Texas countries, two of which were new all-time for me: CN3A in Morocco, and SV9CVY, Mike in Crete, who eluded me the last time I heard him on 20m. This brings my DXCC total to 43 worked since June 16. Plus I worked South Dakota and Connecticut, too; nine states to go...

On more than one occasion I had DX stations question my Zone 7 exchange, asking if I wasn't Zone 8. I'm guessing whatever contest software they're using is pre-filling the ITU zone to 8 based on my W2 prefix. Hope these QSO's weren't blown.

Despite the embarrassment my whopping claimed score of 742 will surely cause me, I submitted my Cabrillo log file in order to help the guys I worked.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Complete DXing.

My goal each time I sit down in front of the radio is to do something new -- work a new DXCC country, or a new state, or a country or state on a new band or in a new mode. This helps overcome the doldrums of watching the same stations scroll by in SuperBrowser or listening to the same people having the same old QSO on 20m phone.

Perusing my logbook over the past few weeks since going QRV, I find that I have largely succeed in this endeavor; every day of operation has yielded something new, and I've watched my totals climb (37 countries and 39 states worked in 22 days of operation). All this, mind you, with a low-power rig, a mobile antenna, a questionable ground system, a high-noise level QTH, and minimal effort.

Looking further back through my logbook I found that it took me just over a year to work 37 countries at a time when the propagation conditions were far better, I had a better antenna situation, I operated a lot more, and (for a short time) ran a JRL-2000F at 600W. What's changed? Well.... me, that's what, and I can thank a single book for fostering this change.

I attribute my recent results, meager though they may be, to The Complete DX'er by W9KNI, a book which I've read and re-read several times during 10-plus year period of little or no activity and one which has become a mainstay of my toilet-reading regiment (and I say this with utmost respect, as my most productive reading occurs in the Porcelain Library). If nothing else, the book repeatedly pounded into my skull the most important skills a DX chaser can master -- listen, learn the behavior of the DX station, understand when to give up on a hopeless pileup situation, then listen some more. These simple, common-sense principles are so ingrained in my operating style that I don't even think about them anymore.

While working PSK31 on 20m the other day, I encountered a DX station in QSO with a stateside ham. I waited for the QSO to end then dropped in a call to the DX station but got no response. Switching back to SuperBrowser, I saw him just north of his last operating frequency already in QSO with another US station, so I QSY'd and waited. In the past I would have called him again as soon as this QSO was complete. But alas, the lessons of W9KNI reigned in my old impulses. Instead of calling again, I watched the waterfall to see what he was going to do next. Sure enough, he moved up-band slightly and a few minutes later answered a CQ from another station. As this QSO was in progress I scouted out the next clear piece of real estate on the waterfall. Then, as the DX was just about through signing clear, I started sending a long call to the DX station in hope that he would once again QSY up the band to look for a new station to work and see me calling. He responded to me after one call. As we QSO'd, I noted (with smug satisfaction) that others were still calling him on his last frequency while I was putting a new one in the log.

While I can't say for sure that I wouldn't have eventually learned how to do this on my own, the fact is I learned it from W9KNI by reading his book, and I did so a long time before I would likely have figured it out for myself. Gone forever are my days of shouting into a storm of big guns or trying to work stations that probably have a slim chance if any of hearing my near-QRP signal. My ratio of stations called to stations worked is far better, not because my equipment is better but because I simply operate smarter.

My copy of The Complete DX'er is the First Edition (1983), old enough that it still refers to external VFOs and the Soviet Union (remember "Box 88?"), while making no mention of packet clusters, DSP radios or digital modes; relics of the past such as outboard audio filters and a DX-Edge are among the recommended accessories a DX'er needs, items which are presently gathering dust on the shelf as they've been replaced with my K3's variable DSP filtering and computer-based grey line maps. Most of the book's narrative revolves around CW operation, yet the basic concepts of successful DX chasing still apply today to the modern digital modes I'm so hooked on. The Complete DX'er has just been updated to a Third Edition which I imagine will cover all of the modern radios and tools introduced since the early 1980's that are now commonplace in the modern ham shack. I intend to pick up a new copy one of these days.

Perhaps now more than ever, this book should be required reading for all amateurs who operate on the HF bands -- simple observation of the way some people behave in a pileup makes it all too clear that they've never read this book nor otherwise learned through experience the principles it espouses.

Postscript: It should be noted that W9KNI is now, unsurprisingly, a practitioner of the QRP arts (link to PDF file).

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Last Honest Reporter in America

I'd be remiss in my duty as your faithful chronicler of all things remarkable about ham radio if I did not wax enthusiastically about how insanely cool the PSK Reporter web site is. The general idea of the system is described on the home page:
"[PSK Reporter] automatically gather[s] reception records of PSK activity and then make those records available in near real time to interested parties — typically the amateur who initiated the communication. The way that it works is that many amateurs will run a client that will monitor received traffic for callsigns (the pattern 'de callsign callsign') and, when seen, will report this fact. This is of interest to the amateur who transmitted and they will be able to see where their signal was received. The pattern chosen is typically part of a standard CQ call. The duplicate check is to make sure that the callsign is not corrupted.

"The way that this would be used is that an amateur would call CQ and could then (within a few minutes) see where his signal was received. This can be useful in determining propagation conditions or in adjusting antenna and/or radio parameters. It will also provide an archive of reception records that can be used for research purposes"

I vaguely recalled skimming over something in the DM780 operation manual about enabling reports to a web-based propagation monitoring system but didn't follow through and check it out until last week when a station I was working mentioned it during our PSK31 QSO. Since then I've had the site up on my Mac whenever the radio is on and parked on a PSK31 frequency.

PSK Reporter answers the two most important questions an amateur can ask: "Who can I hear?" and "Who can hear me?" It plots markers on a Google Map for all stations you're copying -- even when you're not paying attention -- and also lets you see how your own signal is propagating by plotting all monitor stations that hear you. It's an incredible useful tool for someone chasing WAS and DXCC points. Just mouse over any of the monitor station markers and you'll get a pop-up box with details. The map scales automatically, so when all of a sudden the page refreshes and pops open a map showing Europe, Asia, the Pacific, South America or Africa, you know it's DX time. The screen grab atop this post was captured Wednesday morning on 20m just a few minutes after a single test transmission.

At first glance one may wonder how PSK Reporter is different or better than your garden variety DX Cluster. The difference is localization -- that is, local to your own station. It shows you what your station is hearing; you no longer have to sift through spots by European or Asian stations for DX that you couldn't possibly work. Just as it is unthinkable today for someone to chase DX on phone or CW without a DX Cluster connection, I believe it will soon be equally unthinkable to operate PSK31 without PSK Reporter.

Advantages over DX Cluster:

  • Automatic, no need for an individual to spot the DX.

  • Only shows stations that your own station has received and therefore have a possibility of working.

  • Gives you near-real time feedback on how your signal is propagating and where you are being heard.


  • Only useful on a single band at a time. I suppose multiple receivers can be used, but that would take some engineering...

  • Not yet universally supported -- at present only DM780 and fldigi facilitate automatic updates to PSK Reporter. All major apps need to support this project for it to become completely ubiquitous.

  • PSK Reporter is run by an individual, not an organization. What if Philip Gladstone loses interest in ham radio, or gets tired of footing the costs for hosting the site, or gets hit by a meteor? What happens when (not 'if') the system grows to thousands of users instead of hundreds, all posting their spots simultaeneously to the server, and the current host becomes unable to handle the increased traffic? Perhaps it needs to be institutionalized by a group similar to AMSAT or TAPR to ensure its longevity.
By and large, PSK Reporter is a brilliant creation and should be utilized by all who use digital modes on a regular basis. Kudos to Philip Gladstone N1DQ for developing the system and providing it to the amateur community, free fer nothin'!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Top Loading

"It is important to recognize that simply adding a top hat to a vertical of a given physical height may reduce ground losses." -- The ARRL Antenna Book, 21st Ed.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

June 2009 Wrap-Up

First month (well, half-month actually...) back on the air, worked a few all-time new ones like New Caledonia (FK), Aaland Is. (OHØ), and New Zealand (ZL). (Have I really never worked ZL?!?!? That's hard to believe.) Also missed a few like S. Cook Islands and Fiji, both of which I heard on 20m PSK31 but QSB beat me too 'em.

QRV mostly on 20m but managed a few contacts on 40m including Barbados (8P6) on phone and Cuba (CO) on PSK31.

The IOTA count is tentative -- I fill in the IOTA numbers when I know I'm working an island on the official list; none of the stations worked so far have included IOTA no. in the exchange. Hopefully it will be stated on their cards so I can get award credit.

I probably should be working more USA stations for WAS but I'm too focused on DX. Still, I've got 13 states in the bag, and I know I've passed up at least a dozen others.

June 2009 Stats:
  • 55 Total QSOs Logged
  • 27 DXCC Entities
  • 12 CQ Zones
  • 13 States
  • 8 IOTA Islands