Sunday, October 25, 2009

Ode to the ham fleamarket

If you’ve been even a semi-regular reader of this blog….my sincere apologies that it’s been almost seven weeks since something new has appeared. Since September, life has become very busy, with classes beginning again at the community college where I work along with the demands of an active 4 1/2 year old who just started school himself!

Consequently, there hasn’t been much time for ham radio. The light in the shack might get switched on about once a week for a quick dial spinning session. A few 2 meter contacts in the car to the local guys, or the occasional mobile EchoLink QSO via the local node I operate, and that’s been about it. As the season progresses, and the weather dictates we keep ourselves sequestered in the warmth of our homes, I suspect there may be a bit more time to get on the HF bands more often.

Back to the blog…I have no shortage of ideas for topics….just a shortage of the most precious commodity of all….time!

I did have the opportunity to partake in a time honoured ham tradition this weekend…. the ham radio fleamarket. It’s actually been a couple of years since I made a pilgrimage to one of these events, so I was quite enthusiastic to gas up the mobile, fill the travel mug with some java from a favourite coffee emporium, and head west-bound 401 towards Markham, a suburb of Toronto for a flea market hosted by the York Region Amateur Radio Club.

It’s about a two hour drive from HQ, so hitting the road by 7am was essential to get there in time for the 9am opening. Let’s face it, if you can’t get there within an hour of opening time….don’t bother! Reminds me of the first such event I ever attended 22 years ago, a few months before getting my licence. Not knowing anything about hamfest culture at that time, and seeing the event was advertised to be open from 9am to 2pm, I decided to drop by about 12:30pm. I found it odd that there was no one at the main entrance to collect to admission fee, and then disappointed to see most of the vendors had either left, or were in the midst of packing up. Lesson learned.

I had nothing particular on my shopping list for this quest (the wish list….that’s entirely different). So my contribution to boosting the economy was limited to the admission fee (actually that was covered by my passenger…thank’s Dave, VE3UGT!), four tickets for the super draw (guys, I’m still waiting for the phone call), and some good quality wire and associated lugs, nuts and connectors to finally do a proper install on my mobile rig (the cigarette lighter adapter has been a source of embarrassment). Bought that stuff from a start up company specializing in such accessories, Armitron Power Products. Oh yea, the hamfest grub. I passed on the traditional hotdog for a muffin and some gawd-awful coffee (seriously, have you ever had good coffee at one of these things? the club’s credit this swill was free).

Some hamfest coffee should come with a warning of what you're about to endure
For me, attending these events is as much about meeting up with some old faces as it is about looking for any deals. I managed to see several guys from the Ontario DX Association, but didn’t see anyone from my old club, the North Shore Amateur Radio Club of Oshawa. I’m sure there were some members there, just none who may remember me from 17 years ago(!) Anyway nice to meet up with some of the folks I haven’t seen in a while, also glad to see I’m not the only one getting greyer.

A few observations:
-The hamfests I’ve been to in the past decade or so are all getting smaller. Less vendors, and in some cases it appears less attendees. Ironically there have never been so many licensed amateurs, and the choice of amateur products has never been so plentiful.
-Some vendors of used gear need a reality check with pricing. I saw a few deals, but the asking prices on many of the used rigs seemed high. Why would I pay $125 for a 15 year old 2 meter rig, when I can walk over to one of the retail vendors and pick up a brand new one on sale for $129?
-The classic or ‘vintage’ stuff is way too expensive. I know some of these oldie-but-goodie rigs are sought after, but you have no idea of how many mods, or how much tinkering has happened under the chassis of these old gems.
-Too much stuff that has nothing to do with radio. Why in the world would I want a cell phone from 1990 that’s the size of a brick…and wouldn’t work on today digital systems anyway? Okay for some computer-related items, but really, who really would have any practical use for a Tandy or Commodore anymore!
-How do I say this gently?...Some (only a few but they stand out) should really consider a shower before coming to these events.

Hmmm….didn’t mean for all those to be negative in tone! Ham radio fleamarkets really are a part of the amateur radio culture that I hope will continue to survive. What beats a morning spent with an auditorium full of like-minded folks to paw through some gear, oggle the new stuff, and have some eyeball QSOs? Well worth the price of admission.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Lamenting the end of summer '09

Holy cow, where did it go? I’m sure that’s a common remark during the last weekend of summer (I know…summer’s not over from a seasonal standpoint until September 21, but for practical purposes, it’s pretty much a done deal). But really, doesn’t it seem like summer passes as fast as an extra hot burrito?

I work at a community college, so I consider summer to be a four-month period starting the beginning of May. While my job entails me working throughout the summer months (except for three weeks vacation), the quieter halls and slightly slower pace makes it a time to treasure.

In this part of the world, folks did a lot of complaining about the “summer that never was”….weather-wise. I actually didn’t mind the cooler temperatures as I’m not a huge fan of super hot and humid conditions, but it did rain a little too much. On the plus side, my new rain barrel was never empty and I didn’t use a drop of city water on the garden (why my water bill was more than normal remains a mystery).

On the radio side, summer tends to be when many hams have less time to sit in the shack twiddling the dials…something to do with family commitments and yard work….sheesh. Although I was balancing that also, my level of activity was probably its highest in at least five years. My little 2nd harmonic is another year older, and while he still demands (and boy can he demand!) a lot of attention from myself and the XYL, it seemed I was able to steal a little more time in my comfy basement shack.

A few neat things that took place radio-wise for me:
-Acquiring a new (well, new to me) HT...the Yaesu VX-6R (still learning those menus).
-I took some time to try to better understand the characteristics of propagation and the solar cycle…exactly when will that promised Solar Cycle 24 start anyway??
-Speaking of propagation, I was able to log quite a few 6 meter contacts and give my relatively new tri-band vertical a bit of a workout. There were a number of impressive openings, and I was lucky enough to be around for at least a few of them.
-I also tried out a new mode. Again, I’ll say new-to-me as this is a very old mode…. Hellschreiber, Feld Hell, or simply Hell. Despite its sinister name (thanks to the guy who invented it back in the 20’s), it’s a fascinating way of communicating. I joined the Feld Hell club and have enjoyed a few contacts during its monthly sprint events.
-Field Day is always a highlight and I enjoyed my brief outing with the local club. Hopefully next year I won’t be asked to attend a family function the same weekend!
-I finally designed a new QSL card. Truth is, although I’ve had my present callsign since 2004, I hadn’t gotten around to getting a new card made up. I also began tidying up the backlog of eQSLs in my in-box.
-I casually took part in a few contests and finally installed some proper contest logging software.

Now, I did intend to do a little improvement to my main HF antenna, which is a simple Carolina Windom…but that’s yet to happen. Being a good ham, I’ll probably wait until the first snow to get that project done.

73 summer of 2009.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

QSL cards, will tradition prevail?

I recall as a young pre-ham teen, admiring the wallpaper in a few of the ham shacks I managed to see. All those different colourful post-card sized cards adorning the wall with call signs prominent, many with exotic pictures or artwork was very appealing and it seemed no ham shack would be complete without such a wall of fame. Of course, I’m talking about the QSL card, at one time considered the final courtesy of an amateur radio contact. These also served the very practical purpose of confirming the contact, which could be applied towards the many awards available to amateur radio operators.

Indeed, after finally becoming licenced, and those first few precious cards came in the mail, the QSLs quickly found a prominent place on the wall of my small shack. If wasn’t too long though, before I ran out of wall space and became selective of which cards to put up, limiting the modest display to the most eye appealing or ones from DX locations. The rest were filed in a box, or a photo album.

Having not been an active awards chaser, I must admit, in the past decade or so, I’ve not been too diligent about sending out cards. I try to reply when one is received in the mail, either direct or via the bureau, but unless it was a particularly unique contact, or DX locale, I generally don’t send out a card. A big part of it is the time consuming maintenance issue, and the expense of postage if going direct. Even organizing cards to send out to the bureau I find a bit of a labourious task. Or….maybe I’m just lazy.

I’ve also noticed a trend, at least from the many pictures you can see online of other ham shacks, that displaying QSL cards on the wall has become more of a rarity. Maybe it’s a desire for a cleaner and tidier look or maybe it’s a bit of pressure from the better half, who may not appreciate the aesthetic beauty of the cards. Whatever the reason, these shacks just see a bit bare to me. In my case, the cards serve as a way to cover up a concrete wall (the joys of a basement shack). None-the-less for hams who are lucky enough to have an above-ground radio room, in many cases, the cards do not seem to be a favourable addition to the d├ęcor. Perhaps some Feng Shui consultant has determined they just totally through the off the chee in the room.

Despite my admittedly lackadaisical attitude towards QSL cards, I do like them and am currently trying to get caught up. But one has to wonder with the advent of things like eQSL (which I must admit has its appeal to me) and Logbook of the World (which qualifies as a confirmation of a QSO without the pretty paperwork), is the act of traditional QSL-ing on the way out?

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Happiness in a warm tube radio

Modern radio equipment is pretty incredible. So many features in ever increasingly smaller packages. I enjoy using the modern rigs, and have several on my wish list, but nothing beats the style and warmth of the old radios. While I only have a couple of beloved boat anchors on the amateur radio side, I have several broadcast radios that I’ve casually collected over the years. Not a huge collection…just as well as space to display these beauties is very limited. It all started about 1986 when I picked up a beautiful Westinghouse, circa 1933, at a local (non-ham) flea market. Over the next couple of decades, the collection has grown slowly. I love the look of the old wood radios, the art-deco styling of radios from the 30s and 40s, the sleek look of the Bakelite radios. These radios have personality, character, style, even sexiness. Okay maybe I’m getting a little carried away on that last one, but they sure look sweet compared with those boom boxes of today.

Many serious collectors are also into restoration. One day, I’d like to be, but right now, I just admire them. Unfortunately several are in need of TLC and only a few actually work well enough to listen to. I’ve been slowly picking up various pieces of test equipment at hamfests over the past several years with the intention to start some repair and restoration. However, by the time I get around to it, the test equipment may also qualify as vintage…necessitating me to buy some newer test equipment to repair the old test equipment to fix the old radios. Ooo, this could quickly become a vicious circle.

Over the coming weeks I plan to post photos of my modest collection, starting with the table-tops, then the floor models, portables and communications receivers. So, if you like the ‘oldies but goodies’ tune back soon. My first vintage radio, and still my favourite, purchased in 1986. A Westinghouse, circa 1933. It has a place of honour in my office at 91X-FM, Loyalist College.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

"I'll be up in a minute Honey, I'm checking for Sporadic E"

I actually said that to my XYL yesterday on one of my numerous trips to the basement shack to see if there was any trace of activity on 6 meters (Oops, I’m Canadian, that would be 6 metres). BTW my better-half is used to having radio lingo thrown at her to qualify my need to descend to the depths where my little, but cosy, radio nook is located….although I don’t think I’ve used the Sporadic E excuse before. She may actually have thought I was looking for fungus growing on the basement floor, or some foot condition that might require treatment.

The frequent 6m checks were due to this weekend's CQ World-Wide VHF contest. If there was any type of propagation happening on either the 6 or 2 meter band this weekend, it would be very evident by the sheer number of people who would be on the air. Well this time the sun just wasn’t cooperating. At least in this particular Maidenhead (FN14) the activity was little to zilch. Parked on the SSB calling frequency 50.125 MHz, I heard the odd signal rise above the abyss, but very few that managed to register a notch on the S meter. Judging by the activity on a DX cluster I was monitoring, Europe had a decent go of it, but action in North America was pretty minimal. Undoubtedly there were a few openings here and there for some and I’m sure a few folks managed some good contacts. I see a few east-coast stations managed Trans-Atlantic QSOs. On CW I heard one US station trying to get the attention of an SP (Poland)…although I couldn’t hear the DX station.

Like the rest of my station, the antenna set-up for 6m is pretty modest. Although the tri-band vertical I now have up in the air for 6m, 2m and 70cm is a vast improvement over the little 2m whip I used to have perched on top of the garage that loaded up nicely on 6 (and I DID manage a fair number of QSO’s with that little antenna). The only contact I managed this time actually took place on Friday night, before the contest started, with a station about 100 miles (160 km) to the north-east, probably due to some Aurora judging by how fluttery the signal sounded.

Back to the sun…the whole ‘science’ of how propagation works, especially with bands like 6m and higher is quite fascinating, but rather confusing for the novice. Like many things there are some great on-line resources. One of my favourites is, maintained by VE3EN. It’s a great quick reference to see if ole sol is sending some “radio sunshine” our way.

Here's a list of some other useful sites that explain, predict, or otherwise simplify the propagation phenomenom. This is is by no means complete, and if you know of a useful site, please let me know by posting a comment.

73 & Good DX! A good place to get the propagation conditions and predictions for the upcoming week. Despote being written by a Professor of Physics (who is a ham) this explains propagation theory in a fairly easy-to-understand way. Although written more with the FM/TV DXer in mind, Glenn Hauser does an excellent job of explains the different types of propagation. A good portal to all sorts of sites about propagation. Another good portal. Some quick data on current conditions, including sular flux, A & K indexes, solar winds and a three-day forcast. Not specifically directed to the radio amateur, but tonnes of useful information about what the sun is up to.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Field Day 2009

Over the 21 years that I've been a ham, one of my favourite activities has always been Field Day. Nothing seems to speak to the spirit of amateur radio better than a group of hams cooperating together to set up temporary stations in simulated emergency conditions. Then spend 24 hours with friends doing a little operating, a little socializing and enjoying some fine Field Day cuisine. Years back, I was the Field Day Manager for a club I was involved with and thoroughly enjoyed seeing things come together. In recent years my level of involvement has been limited by family and sometimes work concerns. This year, Murphy's Law again kicked in as an out-of-town family gathering meant I wasn't able to take part except for a few hours on the Saturday evening. None-the-less it was a blast and I'm doing my best to keep the calendar clear for next year.

Following are some images of the Field Day set up for VE3RL. For the past several years, local Field Day activities have been a cooperative effort between the Quinte Amateur Radio Club and the Prince Edward Radio Club.

In the past, the Field Day sites have been in various locations including a cabin at a conservation area, an old school house and last year in very comfortable digs at the administration building for the local conservation authority. This year the guys thought...hey, let's have "Field Day" in an actual field...what a concept! The land is owned by Eric VA3EP and located in a quiet spot of Prince Edward County near Picton, Ontario.

Brian VA3BRW was manning the digital station, primarily on RTTY. He was comfy in his modern and cosy camper trailer.
A bit of a fuzzy shot, but a close up of the neatly arranged digital operating station.

The 40-80 position was in a tent. Mike VE3OX owns the nice Vibroplex and was planning on running CW through the night. He was taking a break after a swarm of mosquitos invaded the tent.
The 20-15-10 station was located in a trailer previously used to transport racing motorcycles.

Inside the 20m trailer. Al VE3FZ on the mic with Bob VA3ACE logging.

All the essentials for Field Day operating...a computer for logging, HF Rig (Kenwood TS-2000 in this case) and an electronic mosquito zapper....oh and a bowl for the cherry pits.

The youngest operator at Field Day was Alex VA3UGT. He made a few contacts on 6m SSB with Eric looking on and Elmering.

The V/UHF station was housed in an old camper that Eric bought from a junk yard. It's now a nice little shack on wheels! Every ham needs one of these. The antennas included a square-shaped omni-directional 6-meter antenna, a small yagi for 2m and an omni vertical for 2 & 440. Looks there was also a dipole or windom for HF.

Yours truly on 6 meters, with Lee VA3LHM doing some manual logging. We had a good little run going for awhile as the band opened up nice towards the American west coast. Earlier in the day, Puerto Rico was worked on 6.

Eric had a pretty elaborate power supply system worked out for this station. If the generator quit, there would be no interruption of power.

The VHF station itself consisted of a Yaesu FT-857 for 6 & 2 meters SSB, while an FT-90 was standing by for any 2m FM activity.

The tri-bander raduating radio magic into the night.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

So many menus, so little time

Modern pieces of amateur radio equipment really are marvels aren’t they? I’ve just acquired a previously enjoyed Yaesu VX6R HT. While it’s a major upgrade from my 2 meter only FT-23R, it does take some serious time with the manual to start to understand some of the many features. The depth of complexity is similar to my FT-897, which was my first experience with menu driven radios. These transceivers have more menus than a Denny’s during a Shriners convention. There is no possible way you could memorize all the various settings, or the order of keystrokes to get some of the whiz-bang doo-dads operating. Sure, the functions you use day-to-day will soon come second nature, but suddenly have to change a CTCSS tone or create a new bank of memories and it’s back to the manual.

This isn’t a complaint (I know it sounds like one) as I realize in order to fit the amount of features into such a small package, menus are the only option. If these radios had a dedicated knob or button for every feature, your HT would be the size of a filing cabinet. Mind you it does annoy me a tad that the previously simple action of adjusting the squelch is no longer a simple twist of a dial, at least on the VX6R (I’d have to look up the process).

These are pretty darn cool radios, but I do kind of miss dials and switches. I still have my first HF rig, which isn’t quite a dinosaur as it is solid state, but it was manufactured back in 1982. Every function has either a dial or a switch, not a single menu to be found. Now, it’s a lot larger and heavier too but, frankly its size and array of knobs and switches, I think, makes it look more impressive.

I see one of the 73 menu options is to have the green/red Receive/TX LED glow a bright white to act as a small flashlight. Now THAT will be handy on those late-night walks with the dog when I need a light to find where the dog, errr….you know. Mind you it takes three key strokes and the twist of a dial to turn it on. Simplicity, thy name is not ham radio. Now…back to the manual.

What a modern HT would look like if someone hadn't figured out how to compact all those features into menus.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

CW on the cranium

I spent some quality time with my radio and CW keyer this weekend, casually taking part in the CQ WPX CW contest. I say “casually” participated because I usually only have a few hours, here and there, over the course of a typical weekend to devote to such endeavours. In all, I managed 125 contacts. Pretty good for me…but keep in mind the serious contesters finish with contacts in the thousands. In fact I was number 2000 for the Hungarian station I contacted just before 8pm local tonight (and I worked a few with serial numbers in the 3000’s).

I’d be interested to hear from other CW operators…to see if you, perhaps have shared this rather strange experience I’ve had. I think I hear Morse code mixed in with the white noise that certain household appliances make. No…my transceiver wasn’t on autopilot and sending RFI into the toaster-oven. And, before you call the nice men in white suits to take me away to the butterscotch hotel with the padded walls….realize that I know there isn’t really CW emanating from the vacuum cleaner, hair dryer or air cleaner. But…my brain seems to pick up what sounds like high speed CW buried within that hum or whir of the particular household gadget. Luckily I can’t decipher anything…or I’d be checking myself into the loony bin (then again I’m not good at copying the high speed stuff anyway!). This phenomenon only seems to occur (thankfully) shortly after I’ve been doing some CW work. It reminds me of a time a few years ago when I was having fun working the FM satellites. I’d be intently listening to the downlink frequency with headphones a few minutes before the scheduled pass…and I’d swear I could hear the hint of voices buried in the static. But, it would be a few more minutes before the real voices started to fade up.

Yup, the brain can do funny thins to us hams. Now…if only the vacuum would QSL.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Signs of life at 28 MHz

I’ve been hearing some activity on 10 meters over the past week or so. None of the signals were bombing in, but anywhere from an S 3-7, and with next to no noise on the band, they were near-perfect copy. I was able to make a few quick contacts, which was very refreshing and gives me hope the band may be bouncing back as the latest solar cycle, slowly, slowly churns forward imparting its magic on the higher bands.

I’ve always had a soft spot for 10 meters. When the band was really hot back in the early part of this century (uh, that would be 2000, 01 & 02) I managed to work some of my best DX…with 100 watts into a wire…on that band, including my first JA’s.

I think right now many of us just aren’t checking the band regularly, and just as importantly, making a transmission. Give a quick CQ, regardless of what you are or are not hearing. You may be surprised at the results. If you want to check for propagation…don’t go by the lack of SSB signals…dial down to the CW beacon portion of the band, between about 28180 and 28300 kHz. Slowly scan and if you hear any CW signals, there’s propagation happening from somewhere. Even if your ability to copy code is rough….these beacons usually send at slow speeds and a couple of listens should allow you to copy. Alternatively, you could use some CW software to decode it for you. Look up the call on or one of the on-line beacon lists and figure out where your signal may go if you transmit. Here’s another trick to see whether 10 meters may be open: Dig out that old CB rig (come on admit it, you have one hiding somewhere) or just dial down to the 27 MHz range….and flip the mode to AM. If there’s any propagation in that end of the spectrum, you’ll undoubtedly hear those overmodulated, heavily exaggerated accented guys (could anyone really sound like that?) whistling and yelling into their Golden Eagles. Logic dictates if there’s skip on the ole Citizens Band, the band 1 MHz up is probably open too.

Why is ham radio sometimes the most fun when there’s a challenge involved? Hope to hear you on 10m.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Memories of Dayton

My one and, so far, only journey to Dayton was back in 1991 (please don’t tell me that’s really eighteen years ago). I believe every ham in North America should make the pilgrimage at least once. Many, or course, go every year, or at least semi-regularly. I hope to return one year, once life’s circumstances permit. However, by the time that happens, I may be restricted to one of those nifty motorized scooters.

I tried to watch some of the live streaming one ham had on his website, but all I managed to catch was a view of a canopy over a table of stuff, with people walking by, or a static shot of some parking lot. So, my hopes of living vicariously through this guy didn’t work out too well. Guess I’ll have to rely on my own Dayton memories of many years ago.

I traveled with four other hams. Let’s face it…this is the only way to go. Unless your XYL is a ham, she just won’t get it, and the kids won’t be amused when they find out there isn’t a rollercoaster. Only fellow amateurs would appreciate three days of traversing the isles and isles of used gear and plain old (but wonderful) junk, or to see all the shiny new stuff most of us can’t afford.

We made the trip from Oshawa (just outside of Toronto) to Dayton in an aging motorhome. Unfortunately it broke down while at the campground and our comrade and chauffeur Norm spent much of his time tearing the engine to pieces and trying to find a part for the carburetor.

My purchases were restricted to a few accessories, a mobile antenna that sort of thing. The purpose of the trip was not to snag the deal of the century on that hot new rig, but rather to experience what I had heard so much about. In the end, it pretty much lived up to all the hype. I saw a lot of neat stuff, met a lot of great folks (especially at the camp ground which seemed to be 100% filled with hams) and got a few deals on some modest things on my wish list.

On the trip back, we were busy compiling a list of purchases and gather receipts for the fine folks at Canada Customs. When we hit the border at Detroit/Windsor and the customs guy asked if we had anything to declare, Norm casually and in a cool manner just said “no”, and we were waived through. This despite the motorhome having ham call sign licence plates with that border crossing being the main thoroughfare for the hundreds of other Canadian hams who make the trip. Either that border guard was new or at the end of his shift and just didn’t care. Now, none of us had made a major purchase, so the government didn’t miss out on too much tax. Anyway a fine ending to a good trip!

Ahhh, maybe next year, or the year after. Hmmm, are they taking reservations for 2021? Or I could make it back down there sooner if they would just install that rollercoaster.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Lawn, RTTY & Auctions

Wow, where does the time go? Another weekend has wrapped up and we’re already almost in the middle of May. Not a lot of amateur activity for me this weekend, with Mother’s Day and some half-way decent weather Sunday to mow the grass. Yes the first cut of the season….only took 38 pulls of the cord to get the old beast puffing back to life for one more season. I keep threatening to replace it with an electric mower as I’m sure there are at least two or three holes in the ozone that can be attributed to the clouds of exhaust my old gas-powered job produces.

I did manage a little time Saturday afternoon to scan the HF dial. I was all set to check out the DX conditions on 20 meters CW when I heard an abundance of RTTY sounds. Turns out is was something called the Alessandro Volta RTTY Contest. I fired up the MMTTY software and away we went. European DX was abundant and the signals were solid. I love RTTY (and many of the other digital modes) because lower power (I was running about 75 watts) and a basic wire antenna can net decent DX without too much trouble. The best catch was T77NM from the teeny-tiny republic of San Marino. Actually not a new overall country for me as I’d worked it a few times on phone, but a new RTTY country.

The main amateur-related activity this past week was attending the annual auction held by one of the clubs in our area. I hadn’t been to it in a few years, so I took some cash and ventured out to see what could be had for a deal. Unlike a fleamarket, the auction approach means that everything in the room must go! For about 20 bucks I managed to snag a decent Yaesu SP-102 communications speaker with some built in audio filters. I was the lone bidder on an old piece of test equipment (cost me a buck). I’m not exactly sure what it does, but if nothing else it’ll make a good solid door stop. Actually I’ve been amassing test equipment from flea markets and auctions over the past several years, as I one day plan to start fixing up all those nice old broadcast radios I have gathering dust, and a couple of nice Hallicrafters boat anchors that work….but not very well. But with time always so tight, I’m afraid these may become retirement projects!
Waiting (and waiting) for refurbishment

Monday, April 20, 2009

The QSO Party. A kinder, gentler contest

I remember my early days as a ham, tuning across that bands and hearing a curious call over and over: “CQ Contest”. I was intrigued, but also very intimidated. The rapid-fire replies and responses were, at times, difficulty to understand. How did they get that speedy delivery…coffee by the gallon? With no time to sip the brew, maybe they were getting their caffeine by intravenous. I quickly learned efficiency is critical. Once false move and the responding station may snarl harshly. I also found out the hard way that to give a signal report any less than 5-9 was akin to ham high treason (subject of an earlier post). While I’m overstating things a bit, the big international DX contests in particular, can strike fear into the less seasoned ham.

I spent some of the weekend taking part (saying I was competing might also be an overstatement) in the Ontario QSO Party. As an analogy, if the big-time DX contests, with their strict protocols, is like the UN security council, the QSO Party is more like a backyard bar-be-que. Sure, there are some guys seriously competing and trying to collect as many counties as possible, but the overall ‘feel’ is simply more relaxed. Want to add a few more comments during the contact....especially if you happen to know the other op? No problem, and you probably won’t get your head bitten off.

While most U.S. states have a QSO party, Ontario, I believe, is the only Canadian province with its own. It’s been around about 10 years now and this year was the first one I’ve participated in since 2005.

The exchange for a typical QSO Party (or q-so as it’s often pronounced) is a signal report (you might even get away with giving a real one) and the name of your county, often abbreviated to three or four letters. If you’re outside the host state/province, then a signal report and name of state, province or DXCC is sent.

Now, the issue of “counties” in Ontario is a bit of a head-scratcher. We have a real dog’s breakfast of jurisdictions. Many are indeed called counties, but we also have regional municipalities, districts, united counties and a few larger cities that aren’t part of any of these and are stand-alone entities. Luckily, every jurisdiction has a three-letter abbreviation. In all we have 50 of these things.

Maybe one of the reasons I like this contest is that I’ve actually won my county a few times. Not sure about this year, as the bands weren’t overly cooperative and I wasn’t able to spend as much time at it as I would have liked. But I’ll submit the log and we’ll see what happens. I heard just one other station from my county (Hastings-HAS), but he’s a pretty serious contester…drat! Maybe next year.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Easter weekend activities

It was a long weekend, but with a number of family get-togethers and other Easter-related events, time spend in front of the radio was limited. I did rise early on Saturday morning with the hope of making a few JA contacts on 40 meters CW as the Japan International DX Contest was underway. However, I heard only a hint of a couple of stations from the land of the rising sun and I was only able to tell they were indeed from JA because I could copy the responding station. I did hear two ZL’s calling CQ contest but didn’t call as they we’re looking to snag JA’s as well and a contact with a VE would have netting them zero points (although I would have loved it for the log book). I wonder if New Zealand has any type of DX Contest of its own? I’ll have to check that out, although I don’t recall one.

Worked a few stations in the Georgia QSO Party Saturday night, primarily 40 meter CW, but also a couple of phone contacts. Speaking of such contests, the Ontario QSO Party takes place next weekend (1800 UTC Saturday April 18 to 0500 Sunday the 19th, then again from 1200 to 1800 UTC on Sunday). I hope to be as active as possible and as time permits to put Hastings County on the air. I'll be on phone and CW, primarily 40 and 20 meters. I WISH I had a decent antenna for 80 meters. I can use the tuner so that the match on my 40 thru 6 meter windom doesn’t cause blue flames to shoot out of the back of the FT-897, but I think of the RF energy shoots straight up and lands approximately 15 feet from the antenna! Too bad, because 80 is the only band that hold up late into the night.

So keep an ear out for VE3/VA3’s next weekend and give us a shout!

Sunday, April 5, 2009

DX "Echoes" without propagation

I’ve dabbed with EchoLink for the past 3 or 4 years, but now that I’ve established a local simplex EchoLink node, I think my activity will be increasing. If you don’t know much about EchoLink, it has some similarities to IRLP (Internet Radio Linking Project) but also and some significant differences. Both systems use VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) as the conduit, if you will, between two VHF or UHF repeaters, simplex nodes or, in the case of EchoLink, even directly between two computers. Detractors may say simply connecting two computers with no RF link isn’t ham radio. Well, technically that may be so, but it’s still a neat way to connect with a fellow hobbyist. Personally I prefer hooking into simplex nodes or repeaters so that there is an RF link on at least one side of the QSO. Having said that, if you can’t get near a radio, you can still use a mic hooked to your computer to connect with a far off RF link. A lot of options with EchoLink!

Last night I punched in a few DTMF tones to our local node VE3ALC-L and up comes a repeater in Walkerston, Queensland, Australia and a call indicating I’m listening brings a response from George VK4AJL. He was mobile and on his way to a model railway show. We had a nice QSO and when he commented that they’re heading into autumn, I’m reminded of the differences between our hemispheres.

Next, a connection to an EchoLink equipped repeater in Bethel, Alaska. A nice chat with Mark WL7BCT gives me a bit on insight into his life in this small community not too far from the Bering Sea.

One thing to bear in mind: these “DX” contacts are of similar FM quality to a chat with your ham buddies on your local 2 meter water cooler. With the possible exception of a little drop-out or the occasional buffering audio, courtesy of that internet pipeline, it’s nothing like the challenge of listening for a weak 4x3 signal through QRM and QRN. Therefore, be prepared to have an actual conversation! While many HF DX-ers are satisfied with a signal report, those are pretty much a moot point on EchoLink.

Now, I must admit, I tried about 10 different repeaters and simplex links and was met with silence 8 times. But, isn’t that the nature of repeaters? How many times have you put out a call on a local repeater only to be met with a non-response! Some people just don’t like picking up the mic to talk to someone they don’t know. Too bad, as they’re missing the main joy of amateur radio! You also have to consider the time difference. It was about 9:00pm local time for me. If I bring up a repeater in Europe, it’s maybe 3 or 4 in the morning there. I chose areas where I knew it was “wakey time”. It was early afternoon Sunday in Australia, and early Saturday evening in Alaska. Luckily the EchoLink page that displays active stations and nodes lists local time.

Give it a try! You can download the software in a few minutes (yes, it’s free). You will need to send proof you’re a ham, such as a scan of your licence or certificate and confirmation could take up to 24 hours. In the meantime, you can check the current logins page, see if there’s an EchoLink equipped repeater or simplex node in your area. Just pick another node, punch in the DTMF code, and give it a spin!

Friday, March 27, 2009

In quest of the elusive VK

The original appeal of ham radio to me (and this goes back to my pre-teen days, years before I got my licence) was long distance communication, what we call DX. To me the thought of sitting in my room and talking into a microphone, connected to a radio on the desk and conversing with someone on the other side of the globe was magical. To this day, even with all the different and wonderful aspects of amateur radio, making a DX contact, especially if it’s somewhere particularly far away, beats all.

Operating with compromised antenna configurations, serious DX has always been a challenge. A few years back, when the sunspot cycle was at it’s peak, I managed a number of quick SSB contacts with Japan (JA), which was thrilling. However, the one DXCC that has always eluded me….mainly because it’s just so darn far away, is Australia (VK). I’ve certainly heard my share of VK’s on various bands over the years, but have not managed to work one. Although not a rarity on the bands, the Ozzies do attract the attention of operators on this continent, and their presence often results in a bit of a pile-up. When you’re running 100 watts into a chunk of wire and many of the other stations calling are running “a gallon” into their directional ionosphere blaster antennas, the on air result is akin to a freight train ramming into a Smart Car.

Sometimes I grab 15 to 20 minutes of quick dial spinning weekday mornings before heading off to work, usually between 7:15 and 7:45am. 20 meters is often coming to life at this time and with less competition on the air, I might even make a few quick contacts with some Europeans. This past Tuesday, 20 meters was flatter than roadkill on the freeway, so I flipped to 40 meters where I was met with my usual S6-7 noise level. A scan of the upper portion of the band didn’t produce much until I stumbled across an S8-9 signal peaking above the noise on 7088 kHz. To my surprise it was a VK in a three way QSO with another VK and a station in Puerto Rico (KP4). After listening for awhile the KP4 signed off and the stronger Australian station called for any DX. I figured, what the heck, keyed the mic and gave my call. He acknowledged another station. I then realized my RF power out was still set at 40 watts from the RTTY I was doing last weekend. I quickly dialled back to a mighty 100 watts and gave another shout, but nada. Time to go off to work. Wednesday, morning…there he was again! Still a nice signal and he was calling for DX. I gave several calls but each time another station was acknowledged. At one point he called “who’s the VE3”, I quickly keyed the mic and gave my call phonetically twice. But….alas is was another VE3 near Hamilton who managed to make the contact. No doubt he had his ionosphere buster antenna pointed right down the VK’s throat! Oh well, off to work.

That evening while pondering the situation, I looked up the station I’d been hearing the past few days on VK2APG, Gerry in a little place called Bundanoon, not too far from Sydney (yes, it’s a funny sounding name, but I’m not going to poke fun at it. There’s a lake not too far north of here called Skootamatta!). I decided to drop him an email. Maybe if he was on the air tomorrow morning (that would be about 10:30pm his time) he’d give a listen for my flea-powered call. Thursday morning came and no return email and the band was dead. Oh well, it was worth a shot! That evening an email from VK-land…Gerry would give me a call “tonight”. At first I thought I’d missed my opportunity, then I remembered the huge time difference, and that meant Friday morning my time.

Friday morning arrives, lucky coffee mug in hand, time to head down to the shack to see if we can finally bag that elusive VK. I fired up the radio on 40 meters…my noise level was a solid S7 plus some health sounding static crashes to boot! Then I see an email from Gerry saying he was calling at 1109 zulu. It was now 1125…oh no! A quick email back, maybe he’s still on line….and in his shack. A quick tune around the frequency range we agreed to try and nothing but static. Then as I hit 7095, I’m hearing my callsign be hailed from the land down under. That’s great, but can I squeeze enough RF out of that wire to bounce off the atmosphere and land oh, a mere 16,000 kilometres away (that’s pushing 10,000 miles for you non-metric types!). Right away, VK2APG responded, a 55 to 56 signal for me….way down there, from my wee 100 watts and home made windom antenna! Only hams would understand the rush! 21 years of operating and, finally, a VK in the log….and the solar cycle is still on the outs…I was happy.

Not just that, we actually had a QSO, not a long one as some CW QRM started playing havoc and I had to get off to work, but about a 10 minute chat to the other side of the world. It was the usual ham small talk, our equipment, the weather and such, but still a pleasant chat…..much nicer than your typical DX contact where it’s signal report and 73.

So, Gerry…thanks. A pretty routine contact for you, but a very memorable one for me. Looking forward to the QSL card. Now…what’s next. Bring on a ZL!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Signals from Hell

The great thing about amateur radio is it’s almost impossible to get bored. Tired of SSB?...brush off (or brush up on) your CW skills. CW not your scene? No probs, there’s VHF/UHF, repeaters, IRLP, EchoLink and numerous HF digital modes to try. A couple of years ago, a friend lent me his RigBlaster to try out. I was soon hooked on PSK31 and was having a lot of fun using the keyboard to communicate instead of the mic or keyer. This led to some dabbling in that older, but still common digital mode, Radio TeleType or RTTY. I remember years ago, before computers were as common in the shack as solder splatter on the floor, a ham friend who was into RTTY had a room full of vintage Teletype equipment salvaged from some telecommunications centre somewhere. Back then the only way to copy the strange sounding signals was to bring these great beasts to life. The things clattered, the house shook, the dog was barking, the paper spewed! As fascinating as it was, at the time I couldn’t see myself trying something like that! Much easier to key the mic and say “CQ”! Well, now the computer and greatly improved and simplified interfaces like the RigBlaster have made RTTY and many other digi modes much more accessible. I spent part of this weekend making contacts on the BARTG (British Amateur Radio Teledata Group) RTTY contest. I made just 39 contacts, but I can just imagine how much paper would have been snaking across the floor had this been the “olden days” of 20 years ago!

I’d heard tell of this other mode with the sinister name “Hell”. I thought working “hell” was when you were trying to crack a DX pile-up with a noise level of S9 and heavy QRM! Well, this “Hell” is actually short for “Hellschreiber”, and it’s anything but new. It was first developed in the late 1920’s by its namesake Rudolf Hell (wonder what his priest though of the family name?!), and is similar to facsimile. During World War II, the Germans often used Hellschreiber in conjunction with the Enigma machine and the equipment used to send and receive the mode looked similar to that of the Enigma. Move ahead to today and modern computer-to-radio interfaces and sound card technology allow this to be replicated on your monitor. Unlike many of the digital modes, that use variations of phase-shift keying, “Hell” uses on-off keying to “paint” a picture of letters, word and symbols. In that way it’s very similar to Fax and even CW. It may be based on old technology, but it’s pretty cool to watch!

I had considered playing around with this mode once I got around to learning a bit more. But, after a post on by Jeff, KB3ELT mentioning he’d made his first Hellschreiber contact, and seeing there was a Hell contest underway this Saturday, my interest was piqued. I actually found that the CD that came with my recently acquired RigBlaster Plug-n-Play contained the popular Hellschreiber software by IZ8BLY. I loaded it up and within a few minutes was watching words being “painted” on the signals. Unfortunately, I had to move on to some other activities and didn’t get a change to try a transmission before the contest ended. Efforts to find other Hell signals were unsuccessful, partially due to the heavy RTTY from the BARTG contest. Maybe next weekend I’ll have my first “Hell-ish” radio encounter!

There’s a good website by WB8NUT that explains the various digital modes used my amateurs complete with links to software downloads.

So, if you’re getting stuck in a rut with your operating practices, try something new!

Radio hobby looses a champion.

Brian Smith left us this past week at the far too young age of 52. A paramedic for 26 years with the Toronto EMS, saving lives was part of his day-to-day life. In fact even after death Brian has likely saves several lives through organ donation. On the radio side Brian was an avid SWL and radio enthusiast. He was a long-time member of a group with which I’ve been involved for many years, the Ontario DX Association, serving in recent years as its Chairman. He was also moderator of a very popular Yahoo group for fans of Toronto radio station AM740 (CFZM, formerly CHWO), and befriended many at the station over the years. He also served as the station's QSL manager (it’s a 50KW clear channel station, so does get many reports from around the world)! A read through that on-line group and that of the ODXA proves Brian touched many, many lives in the radio hobby.

I can’t say I knew Brian nearly as well as some, as my job took me a few hours away from the Greater Toronto area about 16 years ago. However, I had the opportunity to talk with him many times on the phone, via email, at ODXA functions, a couple of “DX Camps” many years back, and pretty much any Ham Radio Fleamarket I’ve attended in the last decade or so. Brian was tireless in his efforts to promote the ODXA and the hobby he loved and attended the majority of Hamfests across southern Ontario manning a booth on behalf of the club. Mostly, I remember an extremely friendly person, warm greeting and conversation, and just an all round nice, gentle guy.

When something like this happens, you can’t help but sit back and think of your own mortality. A little over a week ago, Brian was his normal self, and then suddenly he was lying in hospital unconscious, the victim of an brain aneurism. This is particularly poignant for me as it was that same ailment that took the life of my mother 25 years ago, and something for which I’ve undergone tests (with negative results, thankfully).

Brian Smith, 1956-2009, he will be missed. Rest well my friend.

For those who are able make it, there will be a memorial service Thursday, March 26th at 11:00 AM. It will be held at the Toronto EMS Headquarters, located at 4330 Dufferin Street (corner of Dufferin & Steeprock Drive - north of Sheppard Ave) in Toronto.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

CW Renaissance

After several nights of sending a shaky CQ on the ‘novice’ section of the 40 meter band and only hearing static, I was beginning to wonder weather the used rig I’d picked up at the fleamarket was actually emanating something resembling RF. Maybe I hooked up the mobile antenna affixed to my apartment balcony railing incorrectly, and the guy in the apartment below was watching a shower of sparks rain down. Finally, late in the evening of June 8, 1988, after sending CQ three times on my trusty old straight key, I heard a relatively faint signal with the familiar rhythm of my call sign. Fumbling for the pencil, sweat beginning to form on my brow, my toes curling…that first QSO was finally underway! It wasn’t rare DX, but that first contact with KA8WMX in Ohio was just as thrilling as nabbing a new country now. Over the next two years I made only a handful of contacts because, quite frankly CW still scared the bejebbers out of me! While I was semi-confident in my ability to send, I was always apprehensive about copying. Truth is, I looked at CW as a necessary evil to progress as an amateur operator, kind of like castor oil to improve your health!

Back then in order to be able to upgrade to the advanced ticket in Canada, which would give phone privileges on HF, you had to have, I believe, a minimum of 100 CW contacts in your logbook within a one-year span. I felt that was a truly unobtainable goal for me. Luckily the licencing structure changed in late 1990 and I was “grandfathered” to the advanced level. So at that point, I picked up the microphone and rarely looked back.

It wasn’t until a few years ago, after unearthing my old Healthkit electronic keyer that I built when I was 14 back in 1975, that my interest in the ‘original mode’ was rekindled. I’d built that keyer long before I got my ticket, and it was a very rewarding when the thing actually worked! That experience also gave me a love for the smell of solder. (I’ve since learned inhaling burning solder is about as health as smoking an old lead window frame!) After blowing out close to 30 years of dust bunnies, it still worked! I’m not sure why I close to learn CW on a straight key prior to getting my licence, but I now felt sending on paddles would ultimately be easier. I had to essentially relearn the whole process. I downloaded a free program called Morse Cat (great program, and it's fun to watch the kitty tap the straight key!). I also tried to catch as many of the W1AW broadcasts as possible to brush up before daring my first CW QSO in many years.

Well that first contact did come and with that old Healthkit keyer to boot! Shortly afterward, I upgraded to a nice set if paddles from MFJ. I don’t make a huge pile of contacts on CW, but every once in a while, when I’m feeling nostalgic for simpler times, or just feel like a challenge, I’ll give it a shot. I’ve also dabbed in a few of the CW contests, most recently the RSGB Commonwealth contest held this past Saturday. I admit, I do ‘cheat’ a bit by having a CW program running on the computer to aid with copying, but I do send manually and try to copy with a pencil as much as possible. However, in contest situations, the wpm rate of some of the stations would make a machine gun sound it’s pretty much an essential tool! One thing I know for sure, I need to invest in a good CW filter for my FT-897. It’s inevitable, whenever I’m trying to copy one station, another strong one fires up nearby and attenuates a good chunk of the band. Ah, CW exhilarating and frustrating at the same time (like parenthood!).

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Everyone's a 5-9!

Amazing! Even after repeating my call sign 13 times and told my signal is very weak, I’m managing to punch a “5-9” signal into the lower mainland of Blutonia! Really, if there’s one aspect of the typical contest exchange that ought to be dropped, it’s the signal report. For once, I’d like to hear someone say: “You’re 4 by 3 with heavy QSB.” Then listen as the band falls silent waiting for the response! Okay, I’m just as guilty of doing it, but every once in a while I’ll give a true report and it messes ‘em up everytime! There must be some other piece of relevant information we could pass in the quick contest exchange other than “5-9”. Name?...nah, would need too much clarification. QTH?...most contests only care about what state/province or zone you’re in. Model of car you drive? What you had for breakfast? (Personally, I’d like to hear what the guys at the 9A1A contest club in Zagreb had on their plates this morning).

In all, for the ARRL DX SSB contest that just wrapped, I worked 28 different countries (29 if you count Blutonia) and managed to snag a new one…which made the whole effort worthwhile. J7Y provided me with Dominica. I would gave assumed I’d worked that small island in the Caribbean at some point, but my Logger32 software tells me otherwise. Now, for serious contesters with Linears and Log Periodic Antennas and Speech Processors and Magnetically Charged RF Atmospheric Eradicators (okay, I made up the last one), working 28 countries is likely accomplished in their first hour of operating. I, on the other hand, spent a combined total of maybe 5 or 6 hours at various points over the weekend trying to wring 100 watts out of my rig and push it through the coax to my modest home-made windom, where the end result is likely something more like 75 watts. So I’m pretty happy. However, I don’t think I’ll need to clear a space on the wall for a certificate!

Putting my 3 ½ year old to bed tonight, his storytime book choice (honest)… Green Eggs and HAM. That’s my boy!

73, Greg

Thursday, March 5, 2009

CQ Contest!

On the eve of one of the biggest SSB contests of the year, I ask…are you a contester? I don’t consider myself to be one…at least in the sense of seriously competing. I must admit, though, I often casually participate. This weekend for a 48 hour period stating at 0000Z Saturday (7pm EST Friday) the phone portions of the non-WARC bands will be a vast sea, more like a title wave of “CQ Contest”. It’s the ARRL International DX contest and probably 2nd only to the CQ WW DX affair in October. I do pity anyone trying to keep a sked, conduct a net or just have a ragchew on weekends like this! I suppose some could move off to 17 meters or try a digital mode or even CW of they’re so inclined.

When I look at my log over the years, I can’t help but notice a lot of new DXCC countries came courtesy of a contact during a contest. For us “small gun” stations, contests do offer a good opportunity to work new, and sometimes rare, countries. While there are pile-ups, they don’t seem to be as intense and a bit of persistence often pays off with a contact. One advantage of the ARRL contest is that DX stations are looking to work Canadian and U.S. stations, as opposed to many of the other international contests where it’s everyone looking to work everyone. So, a “CQ Contest” call from a North American station can quickly produce some attention (even for us 100 watters!).

Hmmm….I’m starting to sound like a “contester”, which as mentioned above, I don’t consider myself to be. A “contester” would submit his/her logs, while I rarely do. A contester would also plan to spend as much time as possible on the air for the duration of the contest, while I try to grab a hour here and there while I accommodate typical weekend family and household obligations. (The really serious contesters must have VERY understanding spouses….or are divorced!).

So, while I plan to spin the dial as much as possible this weekend and make some contacts (a new country would be nice!), it won’t be the focus of my whole weekend. Actually in the last year or so, I’ve rather enjoyed the non-SSB contests. PSK31, RTTY and CW to be specific. There’s an awfully nice sound and rhythm to the sound of “CQ test” on CW. (I’m sure it gets the true contester’s adrenalin flowing!)

Maybe we’ll work you on the bands this weekend!

73, Greg

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The first "official" post!

Okay here we go, first blog post! First question, why blog? Hmm, I don’t have a firm answer for that. I could say because a lot of other hams are doing it…but I suppose that by itself isn’t the best answer! Part of it is definitely the desire to communicate. I like to think that’s why most of use became amateur radio operators in the first place. In my opinion, some of the better blog and web sites by hams are he ones that offer something beyond a ‘brag file’. While it’s nice to see other operator’s set-ups and hear about their on air exploits, the better sites also offer something extra…a reason to check back from time to time. In some cases it may be tips and tricks on specific aspects of the hobby. These could include antennas, operating, certain modes, chasing DX, etc. Sometimes they act as portals to other interesting sites.

So….as this site develops, I’ll endeavour to provide some of those extras. There won’t be too much ‘bragging’ as my station is very modest (okay if I get a really juicy catch, or do something really neat, there may be a little boast here and there!). In fact my focus for this site will be on resources for what I call the “small gun” station (sounds more respectable than pee-shooter!). While the “big guns” have multiple yagis and directional antennas to choose from, with a nice 1KW Amp to add the punch, the rest of us (the majority!) are running 100 watts into something a little less flashy. In my case it’s a home brew windom that tunes 40 thru 6 meters. Here’s a link that’ll give you the basic of a windom if you’re interested:

Well that’ll do if for now. This site is in the very beginning stages and I’ll be working on it as time permits! Check back often & feel free to drop a line.

73, Greg

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Weekend activities

Well another weekend comes to a close! Had some unplanned fun with RTTY during the North American QSO Party Saturday. I had to remember how to use my MMTTY software! I’m not a big contester (I’m definitely a “small gun” with my 100w into a windom), but enjoy making a few contacts particularly with modes I don’t use every day. I dabbed a bit in the CQ WW CW contest last weekend and managed to pick up a new country (Nicaragua). Okay, I was using software to decode the CW (some of these guys are sending at 50 WPM+!!….I’m sure many…maybe most…are using software) I imagine the purists would protest, but I DID use the paddle for sending! Again lottsa fun but I don’t take the competition part too seriously (read comment about the antenna!).