Spiritual Quest

Walden; or, Life in the Woods

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. — Henry David Thoreau


Winter Storm

Some winter weather rolled through here late yesterday and overnight. As winter storms go, this was a nothing burger. We got almost no snow though a tenth of an inch of ice did coat the area making roads a little slick. Fifty miles west of here the power was out over a wide area, but it was just a typical late January evening here.

Local news media outlets took the opportunity to point out that it was exactly 43 years ago when the snow began to fall on what would become known forever as the Blizzard of ’78.

Indiana’s worst blizzard on record began 43 years ago on this date. For three days from Jan. 25 to Jan. 27, snow fell and temperatures plummeted. While air temperatures hovered at zero, wind-chill temperatures dipped to minus 51. Indianapolis received 15.5 inches by storm’s end. According to the National Weather Service, the Blizzard of ‘78 set other records, including the most snow in one month in Indianapolis (30.6 inches) and the most snow on the ground in Indianapolis (20 inches, which included 5 inches already on the ground from a snowstorm the previous weekend).

I remember that well as I was a teenager with a ham license and a handheld radio. They put me on a snowmobile that delivered prescriptions door-to-door for those who couldn’t make it to the pharmacy. It was a sizable operation coordinated by the local amateur radio club.

Good times? Not exactly and I hope to never see anything like that again. But it does make for a good story to pass along to our children and grandchildren. Winter survival has a few benefits.


Myth and Legends

I mentioned to a friend about having attended a video conference on Friday night where Eric Swartz was doing a live Q&A on the new Elecraft K4 transceiver. My friend asked how long I thought it would be before we see a new KX4 portable transceiver. I’ve no answer for that of course, but it seems they currently have their hands full just getting the K4 rolling smoothly down the assembly line during a global pandemic. Beyond that challenge, Eric and Wayne are approaching the age where most of us begin thinking about retirement so who knows, the mythical and highly desired KX4 might remain a myth…


Liquidation

Another quiet, sleepy Sunday morning in the Heartland. It’s 28F with snow showers but no accumulation is expected. My wife had to go to work at some crazy early hour this morning to help inventory the store where she works before customers begin to arrive. So it’s just the dog, cat, and me at home right now, and two of the three are snoring while one drinks coffee and gently taps the keyboard.

I’ve started taking myself seriously with regards to the simplification of my ham radio experience. My entire station, (except for the low-power gear), is in the process of being sold. There’s a lot to liquidate and it could end up taking months to unload all of it. Meanwhile, I’ve been busy photographing and boxing it all up so it can be moved out of the way and into storage pending its sale.

When all the new equipment is gone the shack won’t be nearly empty. The KX3 will become the main attraction while the K2 I built in a previous century along with a couple of OHR-100A transceivers will stand ready on the shelf, just in case. I’ll order a fully-loaded KX2 to serve as the new “field gear” since the KX3 will be kept indoors given its newly elevated status.

I’d really like for the entire station to be powered from batteries and by the time summer rolls around I’d like to charge them from solar. I guess power and its distribution will be the first of several new shack projects this year. Tearing it all down and starting over is beginning to feel like an all too common theme here and it’s time for some stability.


Simple Things

I visited K7QO’s home page yesterday to see what Chuck was up to lately and wasn’t surprised to discover that he has indeed been up to something new. Since July 2020 he’s been using a kit-built five watt transceiver (CW, duh) with a couple of whip antennas arranged in dipole fashion. These affixed to a pole that’s stuck in the umbrella hole of a patio table. It’s a 17M only experience and he seems to be doing well in this adventure.

Not so long ago I wrote about a recurring desire to get back to a simple radio experience:

And when it comes to my radio hobby, the quest for a simple life manifests in a desire to maintain a simple, low-powered station that only gently disturbs the aether. In this search for a simple radio existence notions of contests, awards, and chasing things fade quickly.

K7QO’s endeavor is precisely the kind of thing I had in mind when I wrote it. Simple equipment, simple antenna, and nothing to gain other than personal satisfaction. I’ve found that when there’s a pre-defined outcome, like achieving a high-score in a contest or obtaining WAS or DXCC, the station is built or modified specifically to achieve those goals. But when the goal is self-defined, it usually comports to the equipment and antennas already on hand.

Let’s say you decide to see how many states can be worked over a 30-day period on 80 meters using just ten watts and operating only from 10pm to 11pm. There certainly is no certificate or shiny award at the end of that journey, but there could be copious amounts of personal satisfaction in setting a goal and working to achieve it.

Not to mention learning a thing or two that you didn’t know about how your station performs on 80 meters, and about propagation on that band at a particular time. This kind of quest can provide important lessons in improving your station. The best part of making your own fun is that there’s no end to the twists and turns you create for yourself.

Plus, you won’t have to produce something as arcane as a Cabrillo formatted log for submission.


The Public Face of Amateur Radio

That letter from the ARRL about the purpose of ham radio was brief and felt as though there was more to read between the lines. Of course, ten of us could read that terse message and come away with at least a dozen different interpretations. Here’s mine.

For a century amateur radio has grown by the addition of those who marvel at the magic of radio with a desire to learn more about it. Our kind of communication has been practiced and perfected over decades. It’s not a new thing, despite our willingness to explore new methods to advance the way we endlessly practice the art.

The result of all that effort yielded a robust radio service capable of spanning the globe with layers of redundancy.

These capabilities are often used for pure enjoyment, but it’s also been employed in service of the public via many facets of emergency communications. Our history of standing in the gap “when all else fails” during hurricanes, floods, etc. is the stuff they used to make movies about. In fact, some believe it to be the only reason amateur radio still exists in these modern times.

The ham radio experience provides an incredibly rich environment for those who want to build, learn, and explore radio, science, technology, electronics, software, and communication techniques.

But it can also be a valuable tool for organizing militias, extremist groups, insurrectionists, terrorists, and an endless host of nefarious organizations and it’s apparent “something” like that took place during the insurrection at the Capitol buiding in Washington.

I don’t know whether this “something” was first used on that day or if there’s been a slow infiltration of our ranks by those determined to use the amateur service as their paramilitary radio network.

The crowd of right-wing groups who descended on DC that day didn’t seem to grok cameras, facial recognition, social media, smartphone location sharing, IP tracing, or even the simple fact that nothing on the Internet is “private”.

The swift identification of so many rioters and the subsequent takedown of their favorite social media sites may have started an exodus from one means of communication to another where detection is thought to be more difficult?

The possibility that the public ever equates the amateur radio service as a tool for organizing chaos surely creates sleepless nights for those in Newington and should trigger a similar response in all who care about the hobby.

For those who doubt that ham radio could be switched off in the blink of an eye, I’d suggest you study the history of World War II and its impact on the amateur radio service. Betting that could never happen again is one of the surest ways of making certain that it will.


Disturbia

The low-light of the weekend had to be this widely distributed public notice from the FCC that amateur radio operators may not use radio equipment to commit or facilitate criminal acts. I don’t recall anything like this in my forty-plus years in the hobby.

This followed rumors that ham radio equipment may have played some role in the the storming of the United States Capitol and violent attack against the United States Congress on January 6, 2021, carried out by a mob of supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump in an attempt to overturn his defeat in the 2020 presidential election.

The ARRL then issued a somewhat vague statement about the purpose of ham radio that concluded with:

Amateur Radio is about development of communications and responsible public service. Its misuse is inconsistent with its history of service and its statutory charter. ARRL does not support its misuse for purposes inconsistent with these values and purposes.

It’s good to know that the ARRL doesn’t support misuse of our hobbyspace for the violent overthrow of our government, but also somewhat disturbing they felt the need to proclaim it.


Getting Ahead of Ourselves

I recently read an article that said for the last fifty years Earth’s rotation has been gradually slowing forcing international timekeepers to add a “leap second” every now and then in order to keep their atomic clocks accurate. But now, rather suddenly, it seems the planet has started spinning much faster. So much so that these same timekeepers are considering adding a first-ever negative leap second, a “drop second”.

That might not seem like a lot, but it has big consequences over time because atomic clocks—which are used in GPS satellites—don’t take into account the Earth’s changing rotation. If Earth spins faster then it gets to the same position a little earlier. A half-a-millisecond equates to 10-inches or 26 centimeters at the equator.

Check out, Do We Need A ‘Drop Second?’ The Worrying Reason Why Earth May Be Speeding Up After Decades Of Slowing Down. But don’t delay, apparently the days are getting shorter.


Yippee-Ki-Yay

I’ve been out of town this week on a work-related mission. The company I work for still won’t let us fly due to the virus. Instead, they sent me on a twelve-hundred mile round-trip car ride across the banana republic formerly known as the United States because that was safer?

Following last week’s events you can understand why every car and pick-up truck I saw along the way made me wonder if its occupants were headed to DC or perhaps a state capital to create a little more mayhem in the coming days.

There’s a persistent rumor that ham radio may have played some part in the storming of the United States Capitol.

Unsubstantiated reports that one or more FM repeater was turned off in DC during the riots because some in the mob were seen carrying VHF/UHF handheld radios and may have used those to coordinate the attack, something that probably won’t make the news in QST next month.

There are also some enthusiasts sympathetic to the cause of the insurrection suggesting that those removed from social media sites should take up ham radio as a place where they can safely share their views without reprisal. Just what we need. More prick-waving hams on 75 meters declaring themselves patriots and followers of Jesus with enough guns and ammo to keep Trump in the White House for a Third Reich. Yippee-Ki-Yay.


Seventy More Wake-Ups

This winter season hasn’t been much to write about so far having been fairly mild and without enough snow to need the shovel. I usually enjoy this time of year but I’ll admit that the perpetual gray skies and being stuck inside with nowhere to go leaves even a fan of the season like me longing for better weather.

And that won’t arrive for at least seventy more wake-ups.

Like everything in life, it could be worse, and it might be in another week or so. Now there’s talk of a Polar Vortex that could result in bitter cold air pushing southward into the US within a couple of weeks, though where exactly that Arctic air will swoop down – and for how long – remains uncertain.

Whether that comes to pass or not, it’s a little early for me to consider breaking out the portable radio gear and planning any field operations beyond the patio.

This sad week has certainly been historic, in more ways than one. Violent insurrection against the government and 4,000 deaths a day from coronavirus and still climbing. Meanwhile, Wall Street is partying like it’s 1999.

Something is very wrong here. The transition to more honorable, intelligent leaders in a few weeks might help a little, but what of the 70 million people who still desperately believe the myriad of lies that have poured out like rain these last four years? I wonder if those who embraced the lies are even redeemable?

We’re going to live with this foolishness about stolen elections, lizard people, and the existence of a “deep-state cabal” of human traffickers and pedophiles who drink the blood of children for a long time and I have no confidence that America can survive this level of sustained insanity for long.

So far, 2021 has been a carbon copy of 2020, maybe a little worse.


Thirty-Five Bucks

The FCC has decided that $35 for dealing with each license in the amateur radio service should cover their costs. The fee will apply for a new license application, a special temporary authority (STA) request, a rule waiver request, a license renewal application, and a vanity call sign application. All fees are per application. There will be no fee for administrative updates, such as a change of mailing or email address.

While it’s probably not good for the service, it seems a reasonable accommodation for a government carrying $30 trillion dollars in public debt. Now is probably not a good time to squabble over small fees for the administration of any federally regulated service.

But the lower than expected fee is better news than the other thing in the Report and Order released on January 29th.

In making their case that fees should be charged for these services, the FCC responded to many public comments that fees be waived because amateur radio is a useful service and therefore worthy of a free ride. They put their response like this:

“As we have noted previously, while the value of the amateur service to the public as a voluntary noncommercial communications service, particularly with respect to providing emergency communications, is one of the underlying principles of the amateur service, the amateur service is not an emergency radio service.“

The emphasis on that last point is mine but it’s plain as day. The federal government does not see ham radio as an emergency service. This comes as no surprise since our hobby is not officially an emergency service. Still, seeing it plainly expressed without nuance by those who regulate our service is a little jarring.

This should end any pretense or notions that we are somehow special. The government equates amateur radio with the marine or aviation radio services. The time has come to toss out all the nonsense about “when all else fails”.

As taxpayers we pay the salaries for those who work at FCC and as licensees we now will pay for those licenses. We don’t owe them anything and they owe us nothing. Our relationship with the government has become crystal clear: We don’t have one.


DP0POL/mm

At this very moment the Polarstern, a German research icebreaker is presently off the coast of Africa en route to a scientific station in Antarctica. Ham radio operators onboard the vessel are operating DP0POL/mm via the satellite Es’hail 2 / QO-100 using a 75cm portable dish on deck and 6 watts of RF from equipment sponsored by AMSAT-DL.

Look for them at 10.489.920 MHz for direct QSO or monitor their activity via the Web SDR hosted at Goonhilly Earth Station in Cornwall, UK.

It’s a radio adventure that gets even more interesting once you dig a little deeper into the details of the scientific outpost, Neumayer Station III in Dronning Maud Land, Antarctica.

DPØGVN is a club station located at the German Antarctic Research Station and there’s more than just a satellite ground station in operation there. It seems an ideal location for a receiver setup because the RF environment is amazingly QRM-free with a noise floor 20, 30 or even more dB below typical noise in urban areas.

The receiver is a SDR built around three Red Pitaya (StemLAB 125-14 with 50 dB preamplifier). They permanently observe all eleven WSPR band segments between 160m and 6m and upload the spots to wsprnet.org. A BananaPi and a RaspberryPi single board computer take care of control tasks. A third Red Pitaya is currently monitoring the ever-increasing FT8 traffic on the amateur radio bands. Properly decoded transmissions are reported to pskreporter.info.

By the way, it’s summer there now and January is usually the warmest month. True to form, the temperature is already a balmy 23F at the station this morning.


Another Staycation

Christmas is over but I’m off work this week making this yet another staycation. Thanks to the virus I’ve burned four weeks of vacation this year just staying at home and next year will probably be more of the same.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy time at home, but this is getting old and I intend to find somewhere to get away for a week or two in the New Year. An isolated cabin on a lake would be welcome relief at this point while still providing a social distance barrier.

The weather here this week is supposed to be a mix of rain and snow so I probably won’t spend much time working outside in the antenna farm.

It should be a good time to watch the weather from the warm side of the window while wrapping up a few loose ends from the old year and making plans for the new. The end of the year is always a useful breakpoint in the flow of time and is a welcome reset, perhaps more so this time around for me since I hope to retire in the New Year.

Given that my commute time dropped to zero this year, I’m hopelessly behind on podcasts and a growing collection of audiobooks that remain unheard. I can never catch-up on all that, but maybe there will be time this week to at least make a small dent in this pile of consumable content.

If all else fails, I can usually count on ham radio to keep me entertained. And in the event the bands won’t cooperate there’s always another nap to be taken. I’ve yet to grow tired of cat-napping while stranded at home.


AMSAT Volunteers

The sweat equity from countless volunteers is the secret sauce that’s kept AMSAT running for more than fifty years.

I was reminded of that again this morning when I downloaded the latest Gray Line Report published by the Twin Cities DX Association (TCDXA). It’s an excellent publication that I grab whenever I discover that a new edition has dropped.

The December 2020 report includes a nice member profile of Mark Johns, K0JM who, in addition to helping with the layout of the Gray Line Report, is also Senior Editor of AMSAT News Service bulletins. Yet another volunteer who keeps the organization humming along with work that doesn’t just happen on its own.

It’s a nice piece that concludes with Mark saying, “The only role I now have more important than “ham” is “Grandpa”.


Empty Sidewalks

Just a few days until Christmas and gloom hangs in the air thick as the virus that brought it. It hasn’t been very festive around here. Unable to cut down a tree this season, we installed a small plastic abomination with lights that I can’t wait to put in the dumpster the moment after the gifts have been opened. No city sidewalks or busy sidewalks dressed in holiday style. Our shopping has been online and we’ve avoided others out of an abundance of caution so there has been no tactile method to get in the mood.


Waiting and Watching

27F with gray skies here this morning. Typical for mid-December in Central Indiana. Drinking a lot of coffee while watching news of a big weather system bearing down on the east coast:

A major nor’easter, named Winter Storm Gail by The Weather Channel, is likely to bring heavy snow, strong winds and some coastal flooding to parts of the mid-Atlantic and Northeast beginning Wednesday. Significant winter storm impacts are not only possible in the interior Northeast, but also along parts of the Interstate 95 corridor from Boston to New York and Philadelphia.

We might get some snow flurries here on Wednesday, but it’s no concern since I’m still working from home due to the virus. My commute time is 30 seconds from bedroom to my home office and is unaffected by slick roads.

So one eye on the weather news and the other on the front door where I’m waiting on the delivery of the rest of my Christmas shopping. I ordered everything online this year. I haven’t ventured out into the virus stream to shop locally. That doesn’t mean I won’t as it might help me get into the holiday spirit, but so far nothing else is working.

Our normal routine has been to have all the kids over for Thanksgiving and then the next day we all meet at a local Christmas tree farm to cut down a beauty and haul it home to decorate. Didn’t happen this year as the place was closed.

The Kiwanis group didn’t even sell trees this year.

We picked up a three-foot plastic tree that’s small enough to sit on a table and that’s just sad. I look forward to putting it in the trash the instant Christmas is over. And then we will look forward to more canceled parties and New Year’s celebrations.

Joy to the world?


First Monday

Spartan Sprints are two-hour gatherings sponsored by the Adventure Radio Society, held the first Monday of every month. The Spartan Sprints have a unique, three-faceted focus. They encourage outdoor operation with backcountry radio gear (if outdoor operation isn’t practical, home-based operation is fine). They gather fascinating information about the upper atmosphere, documenting how low power signals can travel long distances. And they encourage the growth of a like-minded community of amateur radio operators who generously share their knowledge and experiences.

Yesterday was the first Monday of December and I wanted to make an appearance in the Spartan Sprint since it’s the last one of the year. In preparation, I tossed a 30-foot wire up in the backyard, stretched a single radial across the lawn and waited for the 9pm (local) start.

Ten minutes before nine I had the KX3 connected to a battery and the makeshift antenna and was tuning a very noisy 40 meter band. Band conditions were either lousy or my antenna was doing a better job attracting noise than radio signals. When the clock struck Nine I started calling with no results. None. Nada.

And then off to one side I heard a station calling CQ. Not in the sprint, but I figured to work something as opposed to nothing so I called him back. It was AA1PD in Buxton, Maine. Signals weren’t good. Up and down with a lot of noise. We exchanged 469 signal reports and then he was gone. I would like to have asked him about the big winter storm that happened up there on the weekend, I had read the news that thousands were still without power, but he was lost in the noise.

More listening on 40 meters yielded nothing so I moved on to 80.

This band was in much better shape and in minutes I had located a little beehive of SS activity in the area of 3560. I copied K4BAI, N0AR, and N0TA but despite multiple calls, they never heard me. I kept listening to them and noticed that signals were coming up a little. When K4BAI in GA came up to a solid 559 I decided to give him one more call. Bingo! We exchanged reports and I felt fortunate to have at least one SS contact in the log for the final sprint of 2020.

I don’t think there’s a moral to this story, I just need to get the new antenna work finished so I can generate a more formidable signal on the air. It’s reassuring to know that a makeshift antenna tossed up at the last minute and five watts can span impressive distances, but I’m doing myself no favor using this approach.


Gently Disturbing the Aether

The time had come for another reading of Walden, the 1854 book written by Henry David Thoreau. It’s become an annual rite despite my not being a student of Transcendentalism. It’s about living life as simply as possible and that deeply touches some nerve in me as it does so many others. Living alone in the woods, and scraping out a living from the land seems a happy dream for anyone who values independence.

How wonderful would it be right now to reside deep in the woods without a care or a nearby neighbor to share a deadly virus?

Sadly, I will never be able to disappear (with my family) deep into the woods to build a simple cottage with my bare hands. I’ll never hunt, fish, and farm enough to be the sole supplier for myself and my family. But I still enjoy reading that book with each passing year. The idea, though unobtainable, keeps me a little more centered.

And when it comes to my radio hobby, the quest for a simple life manifests in a desire to maintain a simple, low-powered station that only gently disturbs the aether. In this search for a simple radio existence notions of contests, awards, and chasing things fade quickly.

With another reading of the book complete those thoughts have begun to stir again. If it could be done right this minute I’d sell all the equipment that has been accumulating (much of it unopened) here recently and leave myself only some simple gear and the wire antennas. The desire to go back to a basic radio life is powerful mojo.

I suppose this could be dismissed as the power of words and thoughts written somewhere long ago and handed down thru time. But the idea of simplicity in my hobby has metastasized into a strong desire that’s only one step away from realization. Less can be more and I have no doubt about my ability to be happy with a modest sufficiency.