Happy Thanksgiving

In a few hours our family will gather at the barn for what will certainly be the most unusual Thanksgiving celebration of our lifetime. It’s only a minor inconvenience and if it keeps us all safe to enjoy another holiday together then it will have been well worth the inconvenience.

Hopefully next year we will resume the celebration in a more normal fashion. One thing is for certain, the youngest members of our family will revel in the telling of this Thanksgiving story to their children and their children’s children.

Wishing you a happy and safe holiday. Stay well.


Time Travel

The trouble with time travel is that when you get where you’re going, no one will believe you when you tell them about your journey. Think about it, if you traveled back in time to a month before the JFK assassination and tried to convince anyone that the event would soon happen, you would most likely be ignored and ridiculed. And on the odd chance someone paid attention to your incredible story, you might be locked away as a security risk. Then once the event transpired as you described it, you would at the very least be considered a co-conspirator, how else could your foreknowledge be explained?

This isn’t particularly profound, it just makes sense if you think two minutes about it. It’s also the premise of nearly every fictional work about time travel. My wife and I have been watching the old Dark Shadows gothic TV soap opera from the 1960’s. We’re more than 400 episodes into the spooky events at Collinwood (not yet half-way through the series). Anyway, one of the main characters, Victoria Winters, has been magically transported from 1967 to 1795. Her knowledge of key events in the history of the Collins family have convinced the 18th century locals that she is a witch, and that could be a life-ending event in those days.

Trust me, when you travel back in time you should blend in as best you can - and keep your mouth shut at all times, which takes most of the fun out of time travel if you ask me.

One easy way to do that is to travel back in time via the archives of QST magazine that the ARRL makes available to members. That archive goes all the way back to 1915. You can follow the story of amateur radio through a couple of World Wars, a Great Depression, two global pandemics, World Fair’s, and the pioneer work that eventually evolved into the Deep Space Network and the smart phone in your pocket.

It’s a much safer way to travel back in time. You won’t get ‘stuck’ there and you won’t need weapons. Plus, visits via old QST magazines won’t permit you to accidentally kill your grandfather, a rookie time-traveler mistake…


Skydio 2

It was 38F and raining when I awoke this morning. Sooner or later the temps are going to go a little lower and I’ll be reporting snow instead of cold rain. That’s not a concern since I’ve been working from home since March and with no end in sight and no more morning commute I say let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

I’m home alone this morning. My wife is at work and the dog is at daycare. Today’s coffee is Peet’s Dark Roast and it’s been going down easy while I await the window guy who is supposed to install three new windows this morning.

Back in the early days of summer I ordered a Skydio 2 drone. There was an expected delay, followed by a couple of unexpected delays and next thing you know, it’s nearly winter. But I received an email yesterday telling me that it’s finally my turn and the smart new drone should arrive here next week.


The Barn

It’s a short work week with the long holiday weekend ahead. Thanksgiving will be different. Our family intends to gather as usual except this year we will be dining in the barn. It won’t be as comfortable or convenient as usual, but this arrangement provides distancing and its outside. We got a healthy new grand baby this year so we have good reason to be thankful, but we’re all anxious to see 2020 expire so we can move on to (hopefully) better days ahead.


Fresh Grind

Besides being an amplifier for idiots, Twitter can be a difficult way to communicate. For instance, some skill is required in order to accurately express yourself in a limited space, something I haven’t mastered after more than a decade of trying.

Yesterday I posted an essay here suggesting there may be a lot of dormant amateur radio licensees in the US and that if the FCC were to impose that fifty-dollar fee that’s been kicked around for new and renewing licenses, a significant number of those might think twice about renewing a license they don’t use.

In order to promote that article to a wider audience I shared it via Twitter including a short snippet from the writing along with the link. I did this in hope of attracting an audience for the essay. That turned out to be a bad idea as it generated chatter on Twitter with few actually reading the article.

Without having read the article, the Twitter response was based on the snippet I included along with a dollop of simmering anger some enthusiasts harbor over the possibility of any fees for amateur licensing. The narrative was lost as the response went off-course and, in the end, had little to do with the point I tried to make.

This isn’t a complaint, it was my fault and I’ve managed to learn something else from it. Does that ever stop?

But I will tell you that I find less value in Twitter as time grinds on. I’ve been wading in the tweetstream a long time and sometimes wonder why? The answer is that it’s been a good way to stay in touch with friends but I have to tell you, even that is beginning to wear thin and my days on the platform are limited.


Rising Angst

The number of licensed amateur radio enthusiasts in the United States is not usually a statistic that I keep up with. I’ve been licensed for a long time and have read enough opinions about the inevitable death of the hobby due to our inability to attract youngsters that I’ve become immune to that panic. Strangely enough, you can do a little spelunking through 1930’s era QST magazines and read the exact same opinion. Surely by now we can admit that the notion of death due to a lack of youth is either faulty or the process is eternally slow.

But that doesn’t mean amateur radio is safe from extinction.

Out of morbid curiosity I spent some time recently looking to see how we are faring these days and found that in terms of number of licensees in the US, we may have peaked. Growth had been swift and impressive in the aftermath of the code-less license but it seems that magic potion may have lost its efficacy.

I admit these kind of statistics are best viewed in the rear-view mirror from miles away as trends are much easier to spot that way. And the ten-year license term makes it tougher to detect small changes but the numbers do indicate that growth has stalled over the last few years when any detectable increase must be reflected using a decimal point if you want to put a positive spin on it.

More troubling than the slowing overall number is that more than half of all licensees in the US hold the entry-level Technician class license. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The plan was to provide an easy point of entry to the hobby where new licensees could get a taste for radio adventure and a thirst for a higher class license with expanded privileges.

Obtaining a license isn’t difficult. Maintaining that license is even easier given that it can be renewed online for free. What it looks like may have happened is that a LOT of people entered the portal, took a look around and didn’t care for what they saw. They may have lost interest but there’s no reason to officially checkout so the number of Technicians remains swollen.

And I suspect this may be at the root of ARRL’s anxiety over a recent FCC proposal that could attach a fee to amateur licensing, including renewals. Fifty dollars for a ten-year license won’t reduce the number of active radio operators by even one. But that same fifty bucks might be sufficient friction to cause some dormant licensees to drop out of the pool altogether when it comes time to renew. A large downward shift in the number of of US hams is not the kind of publicity that will make the job of promoting and protecting amateur radio any easier.

If we were to see this Great Contraction in addition to continued commercial pressure for valuable segments of our spectrum along with falling interest in ham radio providing emergency communication services then the entire enterprise might become wobbly enough to speed its demise. I’m not losing sleep over that prospect and neither should you, but the healthy environment required for amateur radio to thrive appears to be turning toxic at a quickening pace.


Tossed Salad

The September-October edition of the AMSAT Journal is ready for download and includes In Search of the Ultimate DX by Scott Tilley, VE7TIL, detailing a special DX opportunity he had using a small Deep Space Network (DSN) antenna quickly erected in his backyard.

HamSCI is seeking volunteers for another propagation research project. The organization is looking for amateur radio operators around the world to help collect propagation data during the December 14 eclipse across South America.

That W1AW Morse Code Mug I mentioned a few days ago leaked like a sieve when I poured hot coffee into it. I’m keeping the mug (as a pencil holder) but caveat emptor.

Working from home? Watch: 3 steps to stop remote work burnout

Podcast: Planetary Radio

The National Science Foundation announced Nov. 19 it will perform a “controlled decommissioning” of the giant radio telescope at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, citing recent damage that made it unsafe to operate or even repair.

I was a little surprised (yet delighted!) when the mailman delivered The Five Watter for Fall 2020 from the Michigan QRP Club. I hadn’t seen one of these in quite some time.

CQ WPX Contests Add New “Multi-Transmitter Distributed” Category, Remove Single-Op Unassisted Categories:

A new “Multi-Transmitter Distributed” category is being added to the CQ World Wide WPX Contests to better accommodate operators who wish to compete as a team without all being in the same physical location.

Dan, KB6NU has launched a new Groups.io sub-group to discuss the New Hams program.


Next Wave

The global pandemic continues to rage without so much as a single regard for recent announcements of a vaccine that won’t come soon enough for millions of people. The US government’s initial botched response followed by total indifference leaves us unprepared for the next wave of illness and death as the change in seasons tosses us all together in enclosed spaces.

Back in the summer I commented to someone that I didn’t personally know anyone who had the virus, but that has changed. Now hardly a day goes by that I don’t hear from a relative, friend, or acquaintance who has tested positive. Many are fellow amateur radio enthusiasts whose advancing age is cause for much added concern.

Future residents of North American will shake their heads in disbelief when recalling this dark period of human history while warming themselves around fires built from fetid tires and piles of rotting 2020 political yard signs. History will timestamp this as the moment Americans rejected truth, science and technology while embracing lies, ignorance, conspiracy theories, and phony outrage about masks.


W1AW Mug

The last thing I need is another coffee mug. I’ve run out of shelf space for mugs more than a few times and been forced to part with many of them. But come on, a new W1AW Morse Code Mug, how could I pass?


Apple Silicon

I watched the Apple Event last week to find out a little more about their new M1 chip. Apple is in the process of abandoning the Intel x86 technology that has powered the Mac for more than a decade.

And it just so happens that I’m at the point of replacing my MacBook Pro and I need a new computer for the shack. I’ve debated going back to Linux in the ham shack but figured I’d first take a closer look at Apple’s new silicon.

So I ordered a new MacBook Air to replace my current laptop and when it arrives, a day or two from now, I’ll test several ham radio related applications to make certain these run well on the new chip.

Specifically, MacLoggerDX and MacDoppler.

If these run without issue on the new M1, then I intend to order a new Mac mini for the ham shack. With two Thunderbolt / USB 4 ports, two USB-A ports, HDMI 2.0, Wi-Fi 6, and Gigabit Ethernet it should easily manage the shack hardware. And I’ve already tested these applications on the latest version of macOS - Big Sur and find no issues.

The size, performance, and price all make it look like a great solution for what I want in the shack, and the fact that they gave me a hefty trade allowance on my 2017 MacBook Pro (with the slowly failing keyboard) made for an easy decision.


Fallen Leaves

Living with a lot of trees means we spend much of this time of the year raking and mulching a lot of leaves. It would probably be smart to have a few of the larger, older trees taken down, but I can’t bring myself to do it. Some of them are considerably older than me and I don’t feel right taking them down.

Besides, raking leaves isn’t so bad. And this season the weather around here has been as close to normal as I can recall. Summer gave it up without much struggle and the rain and dry parts of the season happened mostly as expected. Oddly enough, one of the large hard maples in the backyard that never lets go of its leaves until there’s enough snow on the ground to make clean-up impossible is almost empty right now.

One final clean-up day and that chore will be done for the year.

Done with the leaves before Thanksgiving is different, and nice. With the foliage out of the way the antennas have a better view of the sky. And with the yard work complete for the year I can enjoy the Fall/Winter season on the radio, no matter what kind of weather might be headed our way.


Satellite Station Plans

The new ground station is being assembled around the IC-9700. I’ve installed the Leo Bodnar reference injection board with a GPSDO that significantly improves stability (better than 1Hz) on all bands.

I recently ordered the M2 LEO-Pack antennas from AMSAT and those have arrived. These will be driven with a G5500 azimuth and elevation rotor. LMR-400 cable is used throughout the installation with a short run into the shack. Mast-mounted VHF/UHF preamps will be selected and installed at a later date.

The rotors will be controlled by MacDoppler tracking software via an Arduino-based K3NG rotator interface.


Conferences - New Normal

The AMSAT-DL Symposium was conducted two weeks ago. The TAPR DCC took place before that. Coming up this weekend is the annual AMSAT-UK Space Colloquium and the AMSAT Space Symposium is next weekend.

All virtual events this year thanks to the pandemic.

It’s a rich bounty of information if you can carve out enough time to take it all in, and even if you can’t, most events are recorded for later (non-live) viewing which makes it even more useful. Most could never hope to actually attend all these events during a single year given the amount of time it would take and the cost of travel so this is a special kind of bargain.

And even though the lack of face-to-face fellowship does dial back the camaraderie several notches, I suspect this is the new normal for all conferences. Events were already moving in this direction but the pandemic has sped the process and forever changed the way we will congregate going forward.

There will (hopefully) come a time when we can meet in person again, but with the technology firmly in place to stream events and with a willing audience, these things will continue to be streamed. And that option is bound to alter the plans for many who will find it more convenient to stay home than to attend.

And given that income from conferences constitute some portion of an organizations budget, successful groups will have to figure out how to monetize this new experience and make that normal too.


AMSAT & AmazonSmile

PRIME DAY is an annual deal event just for Amazon Prime members. This year it will take place on October 13-14 and has become something of an online Black Friday shopping event with typically great deals on a wide variety of items.

Given that, I want to remind everyone that AMSAT-NA participates in the AmazonSmile program, a way for Amazon customers to support their favorite charitable organization. Every time they shop online Amazon will donate a portion of the price of eligible purchases to AMSAT-NA.

It’s a GREAT way to help keep ham radio in space and it won’t cost you a cent! The donation is made by Amazon, it isn’t added to your purchase, your price remains unchanged. It’s tiny but can really add up over time with Amazon purchases from thousands of patrons. Here’s what’s been donated since the beginning of AMSAT’s participation through last month:

Using AmazonSmile couldn’t be easier. You simply visit a special bookmark whenever you intend to shop at Amazon. The same page that you normally see will appear, but now your purchases will be credited to AMSAT. You can bookmark the special link or you can drag a bookmark button onto your browser bar for easier recall. It’s simple as that!


AMSAT BoD Election Results

The number of votes cast for each candidate is as follows:

  • Mark Hammond, N8MH - 707
  • Paul Stoetzer, N8HM - 703
  • Bruce Paige, KK5DO - 667
  • Howie DeFelice, AB2S - 550
  • Bob McGwier, N4HY - 534
  • Jeff Johns, WE4B - 429

Accordingly, pursuant to Article III, Section 4 of the Bylaws:

Mark Hammond, N8MH, Paul Stoetzer, N8HM, and Bruce Paige, KK5DO, have been elected as Directors of the Corporation for terms ending in 2022.

The members have spoken and hopefully this will close the door on a particularly ugly campaign season and we can finally quit arguing and get back to the primary mission, keeping ham radio in space.

I look forward to GOLF and a return to higher orbits.


About That Proposed Fee

The FCC proposal to reinstate Amateur Radio service fees has certainly fired up the crowd. No one likes to pay for anything, especially when it’s been free for a long time. It’s not going out on a limb to suggest this one will receive a record number of comments from the peanut gallery.

I don’t pretend to know what impact these new fees might have on the growth of the amateur service. Early commenters suggest doom and gloom and of course, “what about the children” who will no longer be able to afford entry into our magical world of radio?

I don’t plan to comment on this proposal because I can’t seem to muster the outrage felt by many. Of course I’d prefer to never have to pay another fee, but you get used to these things living in America. What sort of government licensing comes with no fee? Drivers license? Nope. Fishing license? Nope. Hunting license? Nope. Concealed Carry Permit for a handgun? Not even the 2nd Amendment precludes the government from collecting fees for that.

Deadlines for comments and reply comments will be determined once the NPRM appears in the Federal Register. File comments by using the FCC’s Electronic Comment Filing System (ECFS), posting to MD Docket No. 20-270. This docket is already open for accepting comments even though deadlines have not yet been set.

You can argue all day long whether these fees are necessary or reasonable but the bottom line is that if the government is going to regulate something, there will be some involved costs. And since not all taxpayers enjoy amateur radio, the question can be reasonably asked, “why should all taxpayers have to cover those costs for the few who do enjoy amateur radio?”

Why do ham radio enthusiasts feel entitled to a free ride when it comes to their hobby? I honestly don’t know. It would be easy to simply declare hams “cheap” except their spending on equipment, antennas, conventions, hamfests and travel to exotic locations to play in a contest belies that notion.

While the proposed fifty-dollar fee must be paid up front, it’s a ten-year license with the net result being a five dollar per year fee, hardly outrageous. The way I see it, so long as the amateur radio service offsets its costs via fees, we might not have to listen to Rand Paul someday point out how our service amounts to wasted tax dollars and should therefore be eliminated.

There’s also a certain irony here. Many US hams identify politically as conservative and the Bill that could result in fees for amateur radio was Republican sponsored and signed into law by Trump in 2018. Decades of voting to send politicians to Washington to slash the budget and ferret out “waste” may have simply come home to roost.

It’s not unlike pigs voting constantly for bacon and then one day being suddenly surprised by the pain of the knife.


Gigabit

The fiber to home installation went smoothly yesterday. Only took an hour and I was back in business with blazing (1Gbits) speed. My service is Internet only, no television or telephone. We pay for several streaming services that provide all the content we care to consume.

The monthly savings is substantial with the added joy that I get to return all the Comcast/Xfinity hardware in person tomorrow.

I’ve had cable Internet service since it first came to town way back in a previous century and now 20+ years later we finally have another option. Cable was the only high-speed game in this area until ATT recently began installing fiber trunks in select areas around town. It’s nice to finally have another choice and really hope this works out well.


Silly Notion

Amateur radio isn’t immune from conspiracy theories, speculation, and silly notions. But this one may be the silliest of all…

A large number of radio enthusiasts seem to have embraced the idea that when it comes to our radio spectrum, “if we don’t use it, we will lose it”. This warped bit of logic has been responsible for all sorts of efforts to generate more noise on our bands, a misguided effort intended to show that we’re making good use of the frequencies we’ve been granted.

But I don’t recall seeing anything in the FCC rules that pertain to our hobby requiring us to fill our bands with RF or risk losing them. Besides, how would that be measured? Do you believe there are FCC employees tuning across all of the amateur radio spectrum while keeping a running tally of the number of stations heard?

That’s not to suggest that ham radio frequencies can’t be re-assigned. Threats exist all around as RF spectrum has become like the last acres of remaining land in a new territory. It’s valuable and they ain’t making any more of it. But given the business friendly nature of government all any commercial interest has to do is make a request and it would be snatched from us in a heart beat. Even if there were a million of us occupying that desired slice of spectrum 24/7.

It’s really as simple as this: if some industry wants it, they get it and we lose it. If they don’t want it, we keep it. Period.

We’ve only managed to hang on to some spectrum for this long because we got 200 meters and down more than a century ago when the government thought those frequencies useless and some of them are still considered useless for commerce. For now…

Our highest frequency allocations continue to be picked over because business suddenly finds those deliciously valuable. For instance, the recent auction of a shared bit of bandwidth:

The FCC will auction sharing rights to the upper 50 MHz of the 3300 – 3500 MHz secondary amateur radio allocation to commercial 5G interests in the wake of the Department of Defense (DoD) agreement to share spectrum at 3450 – 3550 MHz. The entire band currently supports a variety of military operations, and amateur radio has a long history of peaceful coexistence with the Department of Defense as a secondary user of this spectrum.

There’s absolutely no reason to believe that if we were making more use of that spectrum we could have prevented this action. Commercial 5G interests wanted it, and the government handed it to them. It should be noted that radio amateurs were not consulted.

So while the old adage “if we don’t use it, we will lose it” might sound like good advice, it’s no more effective than that song and dance your Mother gave you about “starving children in China” when you didn’t eat the asparagus on your dinner plate.


The Equipment

My shack is built around an ICOM IC-7610.

I’ve never owned an HF amplifier and am limited to 100 watts. I’ve no plans to add an amplifier this year, but if and when I do it would likely be a 500 watt solid state amplifier like the KPA500 from Elecraft.

The 7610 has a built-in antenna automatic tuner but it’s inadequate for the wire antennas I generally employ. That’s why I also have an ICOM AH-4 auto-tuner. It’s been a great purchase and handles whatever oddball aerial I’ve thrown at it. ICOM says it “covers all amateur bands from 3.5 MHz through 50 MHz with a 23 foot or longer wire antenna” and I’ve found this accurate. It’s designed for a variety of locations, outdoors, on a back porch but mine is installed in the shack.

An IC-7300 serves as a dedicated digital station as well as a capable back-up for the 7610. Everyone knows about the 7300, it’s an excellent performer and probably the highest-value HF transceiver currently on the market. It integrates with the AH-4 to share the wire antennas, but I’m going to add a new vertical so these can be used simultaneously though I have no clue (yet) how to multiplex transceivers with logging and contest software.

Finally, I have an ICOM IC-9700 for all-mode VHF/UHF/1.2 work along with an Elecraft KX3 for field work though the KX3 can also serve as a back-up as it arguably has the best receiver in the shack. These two probably don’t factor in my DX Marathon quest, but they round out the station and provide me access from 160 meters to 1.2 Ghz as well as pick-up and go radio possibilities.

That’s the primary hardware line-up and I’m certain it’s more than adequate for my needs in this journey. The WORK is going to be integrating and automating as much of this as possible, and making it all friendly to operate.


Colophon

Just a few more details about the site before getting started.

Navigation is simple. The latest 30 posts will appear on the main page in reverse chronological order. Clicking on the title of a post will take you to its permanent link and if you want to share a post elsewhere, that revealed address is what you should use. Get back to the main page by clicking the Home link at the top of the page.

A full RSS feed is provided for the last ten posts. Use the link at the top of the page to subscribe using your favorite reader.

I’ve designed this space to be as clutter free as possible. My preference is a plain white background with black text. You won’t find much in the way of graphics here. Where I want to include photos I’ll link to them. I despise advertisements and am particularly critical of those that pop-up, pop-under, pop-over or are plastered on a Web site like graffiti on the subway. I don’t use cookies and have no reason to track you. No music or audio files will automatically play when you show up here.

You’re welcome!

Links to books or devices that appear here might direct you to Amazon or some other retail site, but I have no affiliation with any of these and are for information only. I’m neither a shill or a grifter and don’t get paid to say nice things or to direct you to other sites with pecuniary interest. I’m not employed by anyone in the amateur radio industry and any endorsement made here is based on my direct experience (I own it) and is only a personal recommendation.

You’re welcome!

I’m using Google fonts (Oswald and Ubuntu) and Jekyll handles mobile rendering well. This site should appear properly on smartphones, tablets, and desktop computers. The Web server is running on Linode, a Linux virtual machine located in North America.

I can’t think of anything else to tell you about the site. If you’ve read this and the previous post I congratulate your interest in tedious details. I wanted to make this info available at the outset and an embedded part of the permanent record.


Prologue

I use a static site generator to create these pages. My input is plain text and the resulting output is formatted HTML.

Jekyll is the tool that makes this possible. Written in Ruby by Tom Preston-Werner, GitHub’s co-founder, it is distributed under the open source MIT license.

I’ve always preferred simple Web sites. Especially having spent several years using Wordpress. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, except for the databases, comment moderation, and frequent pesky updates to install. I would have opted for handcrafted HTML as I did for more than a decade, but I’ve grown weary of manually fiddling with CSS. I wanted a clean, uniform look across the site with as little hassle as possible.

Now I write posts and pages using plain text and Markdown in a text editor, run those files through the processor and upload the output. I keep the original files on my laptop and copies on my server. If that hardware is ever hacked or fails miserably the re-installation requires only a simple file upload and I’m back in business.

That’s why this site doesn’t look like the standard Blogspot and Wordpress templates that are widely used in the ham radio blogosphere. While I don’t want to deal with comments (too much hassle), I did want to present new posts in reverse chronological order and I wanted to generate an RSS feed for my content.

Jekyll automates all that simply and after a few months of shaking things down and getting it all tweaked, I’m ready to put this thing on auto-pilot and resume chronicling my ham radio adventures.