Building Stuff

It would be easy to declare that the weather has been “weird” around here. But that’s lost all meaning since it’s been this way for much of the last decade. And then there’s the weather in Australia that makes our anomalies seem tame.

But lots of rain and temperatures in the 50-60F range during most of December and January in Central Indiana isn’t normal. A lot of folks seem to be loving it. Those who whine at the first appearance of a snowflake. Weak humans. Me, I enjoy winter weather and am disappointed, but it’s more than that.

It would be like if all the birds fell out of the sky dead one day and local residents celebrated the reduction of bird poop to scrape off their automobiles, without considering for even a moment, why the birds died. I don’t think these warm winters without snow are anything to celebrate, I think it means something bad is brewing…

No matter, 50F and nearly constant rain has kept me in the house more than I would like and that has triggered the desire to build something, like maybe a new kit. Here’s one that’s created a lot of buzz so I ordered one to give me something to do on these long, sickly warm, and nearly always moist winter evenings when the sun goes down at 5:30pm.

Like most hams, I’ve become an appliance operator. The excuse for not building things anymore is much the same all over, it’s become too difficult to find parts so why not just purchase commercially manufactured equipment? And that lame excuse has prevented me (and maybe you?) from taking part in one of the more interesting facets of the hobby that I used to enjoy, building stuff.

But it’s not only the excess indoor time that has me anxious to fire up the soldering tools. The January 2020 edition of the Cheese Bits newsletter included an article by Rick Campbell, KK7B entitled Hot-Rodding Radio Gear – a bit of nostalgia AND some observations on current trends in RF design. Campbell has gone back to educating students in an “attempt to pass along skills and attitudes that will help the next generation of Analog/RF/Microwave engineers progress into the mid-21st century”

It’s a great article and I recommend you read it, but it includes rather pointed commentary that hits home:

In the Sputnik era, every radio amateur knew how to start with a CW transmitter and modulate the final amplifier to put a voice signal on the air. Those questions were on the exam. Then came SSB and VHF-FM, and endless editorials about how radio amateurs need to embrace new technology and abandon outdated modes. Yes, SSB ushered in a new era in amateur radio—the era when 100% of radio amateurs became appliance operators. A decade later, FM did the same thing to VHF. Be honest: when was the last time you made a contact with an FM or SSB transmitter you designed and built?

The latest trend in RF engineering is use of COTS, “Commercial Off The Shelf” hardware. Not only have radio amateurs become appliance operators, but professional radio “designers” just string together a set of available commercial modules. Who designs the modules?

Ouch. That hurts a little, but he’s not wrong. And while assembling a little 30 meter transceiver kit doesn’t rise to the level of RF design, anything that produces solder smoke in the shack is better than living the life of an “appliance” operator on a full-time basis.

Four Days in May

Registration for FDIM 2020 opened yesterday and I’ve signed up to attend for another year. This will be my 20th FDIM, I’ve only missed a couple since I began going in the late 1990’s. Hosted by QRP-ARCI, it’s the “it” conference for serious QRP enthusiasts.

They take an extra day (Thursday) and tack it on to the three-day weekend that is the Dayton Hamvention creating “four days in May”. Having had decades of practice, the ARCI folks have turned this into one successful production. With a day-long slate of speakers and evenings filled with additional activities, plus the chance to belly up to the bar with a whole lot of like-minded, low-power enthusiasts, what’s not to like?

The Holiday Inn in Fairborn has been home for the event for a long time (remember when we used to meet south of Dayton?) and it’s a wonderful venue with plenty of nearby (walking distance) dining choices. It once seemed rather “remote” when Hamvention was conducted at Hara Arena, but now that the big show moved to Xenia, it’s right on the way.

Registration is open. When you sign up, you include details if you want to book a room, the hotel will then contact you a week or so later to confirm your reservation (and you will get a special rate in the block of QRP-ARCI rooms). The Saturday night QRP banquet requires additional tickets.

Take a look at the list of those already signed up to go. Hope to see you at FDIM in May!

Happy New Year

Was an easy enough night for me. No partying and I was in bed an hour before midnight. Just spitballing here, but I imagine I woke up feeling much better than a lot of folks! And I still have a few more days of vacation before the conclusion of this long holiday break.

20 Meter Morning

Just before sunrise, I was in the shack and made a few contacts on 20 meters. Not much, just a couple on Phone and two more via CW.

First was a quick chat with Walter, VP9KD on Bermuda. Shortly after I spoke with Theo, OT4A in Belgium. His homemade antennas and coils (see his QRZ bio) are definitely not “amateur”. Next was LZ5R in Bulgaria and then Marco, IK0YVV in Italy. 9K2MU was armchair copy but, sadly, he never heard my peanut whistle.

It goes to show that 20 meters still supports global communication even without sunspots. You just have to fish in the right pool at the right time — and it helps to have a little luck.

Looking to 2020

Though today is just another day, it does serve as a useful marker in the sands of time. It’s a good chance to reset and begin fresh in whatever joy and adventure you seek. Here’s wishing you well in that journey, and I hope you enjoy much health and prosperity in 2020.

Happy New Year!

Be It Resolved

There’s a lot to be done in the New Year. I want to complete the shack remodeling, install several new antennas and all new feed-lines and a new ground system and appropriate lightning protection. Liquidating my slowly growing inventory of equipment that’s no longer in use is high on my list too. Oh, and I’ll finally add some bio information to my QRZ listing. I’ve always meant to do that but have never gotten round to it.

But those are just taken from my continuous improvement plans and are pretty basic. They aren’t nearly pretentious enough to be considered stretch goals worthy of being considered resolutions for a New Year. I only have a few be it resolved type goals for 2020:

  • Working stations via the Moon. EME has been on my personal radar for nearly a decade and it’s the reason I purchased the IC-9700. In my opinion, this is the pinnacle of amateur radio operation. It’s a technical challenge unlike any other facet of our hobby. It’s literally an out of this world experience and I intend to become a lunatic in 2020.
  • Meteor Scatter. Using the ionized trails of rocks falling from space to enhance radio communications may sound like something from a sci-fi book or movie but a cadre of radio hams practice this esoteric mode daily. In 2020, I intend to become a ping jockey and join them.
  • VUCC. I don’t collect a lot of wallpaper, but this is one I chased long ago before becoming distracted by HF activities and I intend to nail it down in 2020.

None of these seem impossible, but all of them will require a complete change in my current radio practices. Having been fully dedicated to HF for decades, I don’t have even a single VHF/UHF antenna installed. Ladder-line is the only thing that currently comes into my shack. My antennas are all supported by trees – not towers.

The pursuit of these New Years resolutions is a complete do-over from scratch for me. There is a lot to do and a lot more to learn. Progress may be slow at first but I believe achieving these in the coming year would be the absolute top of my lifelong ham radio adventure and I look forward to the new challenges!

Winding Down

The unusually warm weather that ruined any hope for a White Christmas finally has given way to cooler temps. The near-constant drizzle of rain has turned to light snow showers. It’s hardly succor for a fellow who enjoys winter weather but I can’t do much about it.

At least it makes my sitting in a Starbucks right now sipping coffee, looking at the weather out the window just feel right. This begins week number two of my lovely year-end holiday and the house was too quiet with the wife having gone to work so off I went. Not sure what else might be on the agenda today, but I’ll find some way to stay out of trouble to be certain.

All the bits and bobs needed to install my new tri-band vertical still haven’t arrived and honestly, that’s okay with me. I’m really enjoying this long break from work and am uninterested in spending the holidays working on yet another project. I might stand out in the backyard and wave the Arrow antenna toward these gray skies, but that’s all the antenna “work” that’s going to happen today.

I have compiled some log stats for 2019. It was another year with noticeably less overall activity than usual. Just 44 DXCC’s worked last year. I think you can track the solar cycle through the entries in my station log. Digital work made up 60% of the total while CW and Phone were split evenly. Last year most of the digital contacts were made using FT8, this year most were RTTY. It will be more interesting to review my log at the end of 2020 as I expect to work VHF and up almost exclusively in 2020.

And since tomorrow is New Year’s Eve, I’ve been trying to compile a short list of resolutions for 2020. It’s silly, but has become a blogging tradition to itemize things that can and cannot possibly come to pass. Hope springs eternal…

Goal Achieved

Following up from yesterday, I finally made enough contacts to match last years HF total. I did that by hanging out on 60 meters for a few more hours last night and another hour this morning. In the process, I worked stations in Belgium, England, Bolivia, Uruguay, Portugal, and several in Canada. Five new countries on a new band using FT8. And as usual with these digital contacts, almost all of them have already confirmed via LoTW.

Prior to this week, I had made exactly 14 contacts on 60 meters, all of them via CW. It was really a delight to find so much digital activity on a band that hasn’t been severely degraded by present solar conditions. I really don’t know why I hadn’t listened on 5MHz for digital traffic before, especially given FT8’s ubiquity.

I’ll crunch all the logging stats from 2019 over the next day or two. I already see that for a third year in a row, more than half the contacts made were via a digital mode, although this time it wasn’t due to FT8 but to my entry in several RTTY contests.

Even with my focus moving to VHF in the New Year, I expect the overall trend to continue to be even more digital work. And I think that accurately reflects what’s happening across all of hamdom.