World Amateur Radio Day

It’s been a while since I blogged. Once you retire, yourday can be filled up even more than when you’re working — depending on how you approach it. I thought I’d queue up a few posts on what’s been keeping me busy. One of these is ham radio…

Every April 18, radio amateurs worldwide celebrate World Amateur Radio Day. It was on this day in 1925 that the International Amateur Radio Union was formed in Paris.

Amateur Radio experimenters were the first to discover that the shortwave spectrum was not the wasteland experts of the time considered it to be but a resource that could support worldwide propagation. In the rush to use these shorter wavelengths, Amateur Radio was “in grave danger of being pushed aside,” the IARU’s history notes. Amateur Radio pioneers met in Paris in 1925 and created the IARU to support Amateur Radio around the globe. Just two years later, at the International Radiotelegraph Conference, Amateur Radio gained the allocations still recognized today — 160, 80, 40, 20, and 10 meters.

That experimental spirit still lives on today, with new modes and techniques that can have a huge impact in a short period of time — like FT8.

The number of ham radio licensees in the US is at an all-time high.

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Another update to QSOSender 3

Back in June of 2018, I wrote a post about releasing an update to QSOSender3 — an application for #Android that simulates ham radio QSOs using Morse code, by generating random QSOs based on a QSO grammer definition.

I had some negative comments about the user interface, so very small Android devices, so I’ve released a new version of QSOSender3 that I hope addresses the problems.

The user interface now looks like:

New interface pix

with much smaller memory buttons and a smaller margin around the outside that I hope will handle anything larger than an Android watch.

I can’t imaging what else the users of the program may want, but people keep sending in requests so I try to address them.

Back from a cruise

You know that feeling on the last day of the cruise when you are both relieved as well as sad it is all coming to an end. I thought this picture summed it up well.

If you have never been on a cruise, near the end you’ll realize the time of abundance is almost over and sanity is on the horizon fast approaching.

Someone left this ice-cream cone on the deck of the ship and it seemed like a great image that captures the thought.

Comparing antenna installations using digital modes

In the previous post, I described the stealth antenna I was using. Here is a bit of background on techniques to understand how well it is working and compare performance against other hams.

I’ve been operating the last several months on 40, 30, 20, 15 and 12 meters — just casual operating with no contests but Field Day. I’ve also made a few dozen contacts on 80 meters and even tuned the antenna up on 160, just to see if the antenna will work. The following is a graph showing the distribution of confirmed contacts between May and November 2018.

Distribution of contacts by band

With the sun spot cycle in the doldrums, I’ve only made a few contacts on 10 meters, but in all cases the tuner allows me to get a 1:1 SWR ratio. I have been able to have QSLs confirmed in 60 countries in LoTW with just casual operating. This apparent success did make me want to look into how well it was doing against other ham’s installations.

At the time of my first random length stealth antenna, I didn’t have the advantage of FT8 and the ability for a more direct comparison of performance to other stations near me. One great thing about WXJT-X (the current program supporting FT8) is that you can do a quantitative comparison of the received performance, if both stations log the stations you hear into PSKReporter.

When set up correctly, WSJT-X will log the stations you’ve heard into the PSKReporter site. You can also look at the stations tracking what they have heard into PSKReporter to see who has heard your QSOs. It just happens automatically behind the scenes.

Using this information, you and your neighboring hams can compare the stations heard, on any single band or multiple bands. You and your buddies just need to agree on a time and band and then operate or passively monitor for a defined duration. You can compare what each of you heard, by entering each of your station’s call sign into the PSKReporter website and generate a report. Armed with this data, you’ll now have a definitive comparison of your antenna performance against the guy who said, “It will never work.” 

The same can be done using your transmissions and seeing who has heard you, all over the world, at any time in the past.

Screenshot of stations who heard me 20 hours ago (when I was operating)

Like many aspects of the hobby, you learn a lot about what’s possible by experimenting and taking the road less travelled.

A stealthy antenna for houses with radiant barrier

I haven’t written a post in a while, so I thought I’d write a couple about the amateur radio activities I’ve been up to recently.

Like many hams, I live in a location where the Home Owners Association (HOA) forbids antennas. In fact, my last three houses have been in areas with these restrictions. Getting around those limitations of visibility, cost and spousal acceptance have always been viewed as a personal challenge. To pile on another layer of constraint, my current and previous house also had radiant barrier installed. Radiant barrier makes the house more energy efficient, while at the same time provides my own personal Faraday cage — even cell phone signals can barely penetrate the electro-magnetic mote that surrounds my house.

In talking with other hams in the area about antenna options, they said that I would need to run a tuned wire to a tree or install a sly flag pole vertical or perform some other stealthy magic to make the electrons wire-walk their way into the heavens. Being a ham, I wasn’t deterred and decided to experiment and find out for myself other options that work.

I wondered, how a random length wire would perform if I just laid it on the roof shingles and used an automatic antenna tuner outside the house, to make the coax and my rig happy. A few hams told me “That will never work.” or “You may get it to tune up, but you’ll never talk with anyone.” Never to be slowed down by the harsh reality laid in front of me by others, I charged forward undaunted. My philosophy is: any antenna is better than no antenna. So, I grabbed my ladder, coax, some wire and climbed skyward.

The roof of my house has a ridge vent which looked like the ideal place for the coax to reach the outside. The house itself is a wood frame building. Fortunately, the RG-8X lying around the shack was almost the exact same diameter as the gap in the ridge vent. I snaked the antenna wire down into the house, all the way to ‘the shack’. When I built the house, I had enough foresight to install a ‘tech tube’ from a wall box up to the attic, so the process of getting the wire to the shack was relatively straight forward.

The next critical component was the automatic antenna tuner (in my case an MFJ-993BRT). I had a ridge line on a dormer of the house that is ideal for the tuner to straddle and provide stability.

The dormer also provided camouflage to make the tuner impossible to see from the street (see figure below). All it took was some galvanized flashing material, some screws from the local hardware store, a bit of planning, sealer and labor and my tuner was firmly ensconced on the roof away from prying eyes.

The next component was the wire itself. I selected a stealthy 22 gage black wire – I was never going to run more than 100 watts, so that wire gage should be sufficient. Yes, you can carefully do the math and cut the wire to a resonate length but the interaction with the underlying roof shielding will likely render those calculations moot. I was also going to use the antenna on multiple bands, so a random length perspective will have to do. I went with the traditional adage of “more is better” and ran the wire along the roof crest to the edge and then down the side of the roof – hot gluing the wire to the shingles all along the way, when needed. I live in a hurricane prone area, so anything I can do to keep the wire from flopping around is a worthwhile investment. In total, the “active element” is more than 70 feet long. I also attached a counterpoise to the appropriate connecter on the antenna tuner.

The counterpoise was only about 20 feet long, running along a gable of the house. I was careful to not have either wire run alongside the coax going into the house.

Once the installation was complete, I scurried down the ladder full of anticipation. I made it to the shack, plugged everything in and fired up the radio for my first QSO. Back in 2010, I lived in Texas and primarily ran PSK.  The first 3 stations I worked were in South American, on 20 meters. I declared: “Good enough, I am not touching it.” That installation functioned well for about 6 years, providing thousands of contacts.

Like many things in life though, change happens. In 2018, I moved to South Carolina. Since the previous antenna worked so well, I thought I’d create a similar configuration here. This time I have a slightly smaller house, but one that is a bit taller.

Currently, I have an ICOM 7600 as my main radio and I typically run around 35 watts for digital modes. I’ve been operating the last seven months on 40, 30, 20, 15 and 12 meters. I’ve also made a few dozen contacts on 80 meters and even tuned the antenna up on 160 just to see if it will work. My next post will go into a bit more about how it performs and how to compare antenna performance using FT8

Glass blowing in Savannah

This week, we went to a glass blowing workshop in Savannah. We’d been glass blowing a couple of times while we lived in the Dallas area. When our neighbor saw what we made they were interested, so I set it up.

We went to Hostess City Hot Glass, and found it to be an outstanding opportunity to practice working with glass. This was a hands-on, well explained and friendly environment, small but laid out effectively. All the actions taken in making our glass objects were explained and practiced, before you had to perform the tasks required. This gave us confidence, as well as understanding.

It was definitely not like some glass workshops, where you perform just a few tasks in the process and watch the rest. We were involved throughout and they were willing to take their time, give advice and background on what we were doing and why.  Our group made glass ornaments and paperweights — basic but just what we were expecting. All of them turned out great.

You get to choose the colors that will be blended to make your object, then you blend the colors into the molten glass

fire and roll the glass,

shape it and eventually blow it to shape.

Michelle shaping the glass before blowing

All under the direction and in some cases direct involvement of the glass artist. We were a group of 4 and had a great time. I’d definitely recommend this to anyone interested in the art of glass blowing.

Joggling board

Since I’ve been doing more woodworking lately and there is one piece of furniture that is unique to South Carolina — I thought I’d make one.

It’s a Joggling board. As you can see it rocks from side to side. 

I’d seen them around at some of the historical sites, so I thought I’d made one for our front porch for my wife’s Christmas. Mine (6 feet long) is not as large as an official board, since those are 10-16 feet long. My porch just couldn’t pull a real one off.

It is also not painted the ‘official’ Charleston Green (which is really closer to black than green). I added some large cup holders on the end — after all it is the 21st century.

There are a variety of stories about its origin, such as:

Also from a flexibility perspective, if I put some chocks under it, it could also be used as an outdoor buffet.