Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Farewell to the Micro-Shack

Micro-Shack desk in all of its glory, just before I started packing
Impermanence is the only absolute in life. Once you get used to something, it's bound to change. And so it is with the Micro-Shack. It took a couple of months to prepare this space in 2011. Now the time has come to leave.

My wife has been assigned to a new church, so we leave Floyd County and go half-way across the state to the new church in Walton county. The good news is that the new church is just a few miles from my Gwinnett County QTH -- so I'll be able to spend more time there.

For now, though, I wanted to reminisce about this tiny little room where I spent many hours enjoying my hobby. It's hard to get a picture of the place -- camera angles are difficult in such a tiny room. The view above shows a clutter of equipment on the shelves, as well as other electronic debris at the periphery of the very tiny desk. To the right is the storage room door that swings outward (because there's no room to swing inward), to the left a window, and behind me, water heaters, electrical breaker boxes, and a miscellaneous pile of tools on a cheap plastic shelf unit.

In other words, it's a cluttered but well-loved and well-used space.

The operating desk is just 29 inches off the floor. I found this to be the perfect height. At the Gwinnett County shack, the operating desk is a 30-inch door sitting on top of a couple of filing cabinets. It's too high (about 31") and makes for uncomfortable operating. I'm seriously thinking about building support legs for the door and moving the filing cabinets elsewhere.

Micro-Shack just after construction, before
I brought in a bunch of stuff. Note the
nice stack of shelves. Plenty of room for
just about anything. The desk and shelves
will stay with the parsonage.
That desk has seen a variety of equipment. Originally, I had the Kenwood TS-430S there, as well as my "Novice" transmitter and receiver. As I spent more time there, I swapped the Kenwood for the Elecraft K2/100 in Gwinnett. And two and a half years ago, my wife surprised me with the Elecraft K3/100, which I assembled on that very desk.

I build several projects on that desk - several antenna traps, the K1EL K12 keyer, rebuilt the Mini-MOS keyer, as well as a couple of other projects I have not written up yet.

The antenna setup out here in Floyd County has been extremely modest: R7000, 80/40m Trap Dipole160/80/40m Trap Inverted-L, and a 6m Dipole.

To be honest, the R7000, despite the rebuild and the ground-mounted radial wires, has pretty much been a waste of time. This antenna never did perform well at the Gwinnett QTH, and while it is better than no antenna, it couldn't hold a candle to the wire antennas in the trees. I don't plan to put it back up, I'll probably sell it off.

The 80/40m Trap Dipole, despite being at a modest height of roughly 10m has done extremely well, especially on 40m. On 80m, I did have some trouble with a weird fundamental overload of the Acer laptop keyboard -- transmitting on 80m would cause the Acer not to accept keystrokes for a short time afterwards.

The 160/80/40m antenna has been the sweetest deal out here in Floyd County. With 1500 feet of radials, it's reasonably efficient, and has worked well even as a random vertical on the other bands. I made my first 6m contacts on this antenna.

I haven't written about the 6m dipole antenna, because there's not much to talk about. It's just a simple  dipole made with junk wire hanging in the trees at about 3m high. When 6m is open, it works!

In this tiny room, I've done a ton of operating. Contests - CQWW CW (3), ARRL 10m (3), RTTY Round Up (4), NAQP CW (3), NAQP Phone (4), NAQP RTTY (3), WPX Phone (2), Georgia QSO Party (3), ARRL Field Day (2), IARU (2), CQWW RTTY (3), Sweepstakes Phone (2), ARRL 160m, Stew Perry (3), VHF Sweeps (2), ARRL DX CW (3), ARRL DX Phone, WPX CW, VHF QSO Party, CQWW Phone (2), Sweepstakes CW, ARRL 160m (2), CQ 160m CW, CQ 160m Phone. Some of them were just a few hours on a Sunday afternoon, perhaps a handful of contacts but there were several I set a new personal best score: George QSO Party, ARRL 160m, SS CW, Stew Perry.

Estimating from my logs, I have made over twelve thousand QSOs from this quiet little room.

Being more than 25 miles from Gwinnett County, I had to start over for WAS. During my brief three and a half years of operating, in Logbook of the World, I have confirmations for WAS several ways:
  • Mixed
  • CW
  • Phone
  • Digital
  • 40m
  • 30m
  • 20m
  • Triple-Play
As well as being very close on a few others:
  • 160m - 49 (AK)
  • 80m - 49 (UT)
  • 17m - 47 (AL, KY, SC)
  • 15m - 46 (DE, MS, SC, WV)
  • 5-band - 230 out of 250
A lot of that came from 10 months of very purposeful pursuit of the W1AW-portable operations in 2014, especially on the WARC bands. But most of it was operating a bunch of contests.

Yes, I have a lot of fond memories of this place. Like pursuing the K1N Expedition. It was so much fun busting pileups with just a wire antennas, or getting up at 4 AM to outsmart the competition.

The Micro-Shack wasn't always the most inviting place. In the wintertime, it could be quite cold. The digital thermometer would sometimes read about 45 degrees F on the coldest days. However, a small space heater would warm things up in a half-hour or so. Summertime was much tougher. When it is hot in Georgia, it is hot. I could open the door and run a floor fan to cool things down a bit -- but in the height of summer, it would just blow hot air around. I don't know how I operated contests such as Field Day or IARU in the heat of the summer.

The Micro-Shack wasn't convenient, either. Feel the call of nature? Well, you have to go out of the storage room and walk to the house. More than once I was outside operating late at night and my family would lock the door. Perhaps they were trying to tell me something. I told my wife the next place should definitely have a shack where you don't have to walk out of doors to get to the operating position.

Small, cluttered, inconvenient, often uncomfortable. That well describes the Micro-Shack. However, I will remember it quite fondly. It allowed me to stay connected to my hobby despite being a hundred miles away from my main QTH.

Farewell, Micro-Shack. You may be gone, but you will not be forgotten.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Things I've Learned about Antennas - Horizontal Antennas

I've been fooling around with radio for more than 40 years. Finished my first receiver January 1971, so I guess it's closer to 44 years. In those early years, I didn't know anything about antennas. My initial antennas were nothing more than magnet wire strung up around my attic bedroom. They worked - Badly.

Over the years, I've learned a few bits of wisdom about antennas. This article is about:
  • Horizontal Antennas
Be they dipoles, center-fed Zepps, yagis, quads, Vee beams or rhombics -- horizontal antennas share one key characteristic -- their most important dimension is height above ground in wavelengths.

The height determines the radiation pattern, impedance and much of the loss. I remember a few years ago on the QRP mailing lists there was a hot debate about one of W4RNL's designs -- the "88 foot" dipole. When LB modeled this antenna -- meant to be a secondary or spare antenna when your beam failed in the middle of a contest -- he did so at 100 feet and also at 70 feet. 

This design was supposed to give reasonable performance on 80, 40 and 20m. 88 feet worked out to be about right. Long enough not to have too crazy impedance on 80m, and short enough to not have a lot of deep nulls on 20m. At 100 feet, I bet it is a pretty good performer. At 70 feet, it wasn't a slouch, either. The odd-ball impedance would make for some loss in the feed line, but for a spare antenna, that wasn't a huge concern.

From the discussions, you'd like that 88 feet was somehow a magic number that made everything work better. Heck, if you have the room make it a full-size 80m dipole then add a couple of traps, for pete's sake. And do you think those QRP stations put up that 88 feet of wire at 100 or even 70 feet? Heck no, they were down at more practical heights of 20-35 feet. 35 feet might be passible for 20m, since it is 1/2 wavelength up. But it is only 1/4 wavelength for 40m, and 1/8 wavelength for 80m. 

Here's the deal: the pattern of a dipole is hugely affected by the height above ground. About 1/2 wavelength, it just starts to have a bidirectional pattern, and only that at pretty high angles. Lower than 1/2 wavelength, it's basically got an ice-cream-cone shaped pattern going straight up. This pattern is rarely desirable.

How high is enough? At some point above about 2 wavelengths, the dipole pattern looks a lot more like free space. For beams, at these heights, you can start to get nulls in your pattern at useful angles, so you have to be careful. Somewhere between 1/2 and 2 wavelengths is generaly the "sweet" spot for horizontal antennas. For specific applications, your best bet is to model the antenna at the desired height and watch for undesirable nulls.

Given that most hams don't have supports for antennas above 50-70 feet, it's likely that any antenna below 20m is too low. Get those antennas as high as you can.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Sunday Afternoon Dxing

It's mother's day. My wife is taking a well-deserved nap, I've watched all my shows on the DVR, so what to do? I decide I should mosey outside to the shack and see if there's any DX to work. I'm hoping maybe there might be a 6m opening, since it is the Es season.

A quick check of 6m shows nothing happening, so I turn to and check out some of the bands. I see a spot for V73NS on the west coast on 12m CW. Hmm. Maybe I should listen. At first I hear nothing.  Then, barely above the noise, I definitely hear "73." Intrigued I listen further.

It's just before 5 PM local time. V73NS is definitely in there, and he's calling CQ with no answers. QSB has him coming and going. I drop my call in, he immediately comes back to AA4, but he doesn't have my suffix. A couple more calls, and it's clear he can't hear me as he fades back into the noise.

Noting the QSB, I keep trying. Eventually, as he come back up, he's giving someone a report -- 229. Pretty bad. Oh, wait, here he is again -- he's calling ME with that 229 report. I give him a 559 twice, at the top of the QSB. I get a confirmation. Bingo - in the log it goes.

Wow, just about ESP-level, but a definite contact running over that QSB.

And, today, I get a confirmation in LoTW. Marshall Islands now confirmed on 12m, and CW, and the DXCC Challenge.

It doesn't get any better than that.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Another Kind of Monopoly

Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, Microsoft ruled personal computing with market share. At their peak around 2004, more than 90% of personal computing devices ran some variant of Windows. Even before this, they wielded enormous influence. It took a long time to topple Microsoft from the top of the stack. All during this time I was a staunch Macintosh supporter. I felt that this sort of monopolistic market was unnatural -- that consumers would be better supported in a market with three or four major competitors, rather than just one.

I happened to catch this short blog article referenced from the Stocks app on my iPhone under AAPL. It states that Apple has captured 88.7% of the profits from the Forth Quarter 2014 Smartphone sales. Apple has no where near 80+% of the Smartphone market share --  nearly 20% in Q4 2014, but more typically around 15%.

Seems this is another kind of monopoly -- not of share, but of profits. Google Android captured the remaining  11.3% of the profits, and other vendors lost money.

I'm not sure how I feel about this. It doesn't have the permanence that Microsoft seemed to have in the late 90s, since profits can change from quarter to quarter. But, unlike Microsoft, Apple seems to be in a mode where it is continuously re-inventing itself. And with the Smartphone cash cow, it has plenty of resources to do so.

And yet, Microsoft's hegemony wasn't permanent either -- the market eventually pivoted out from under them. I wonder where the market will pivot next.

Monday, February 16, 2015

K1N - Fabulous DXpedition

My Results from K1N
Well, it's over now. The much-anticipated K1N DXpedition to Navassa Island is now over. Lucky for me, I made it into the log multiple times, which makes me quite pleased.

Granted, it was a pretty easy shot from here in northwest Georgia to Navassa Is compared to other parts of the world. They were quite strong on just about every band, with the exception of 10 and 12m. I never heard a peep from them on 6m.

The pileups in the low bands were completely crazy in the evenings. All of my contacts 30m and below were made in either the 0900z or 1000z hour -- 4 or 5 AM local. That's one of the secrets of working DX -- be on the band when others are not! The one exception was 60m, and, honestly, the channel was so crazy I'm not entirely sure how I made it into the log.

All of these contacts were made with 100 watts and wire antennas, either the Inverted-L or the 80/40m dipole. Working DX does not require huge amplifiers and large antennas.

The team on Navassa Island did a fantastic job handing out contacts despite unruly pileups, deliberate QRM and the usual craziness. I witnessed on CW pileups that extended over 30 kHz with people continuously calling. Finding the listening frequency in the second receiver was an incredibly difficult task, and quite often I was just guessing -- but a few times I got lucky.

As I told my friend Mike, W1YM, now that I have Navassa Is on nine bands, I'm planning to volunteer to operate the next time team heads to the island. Perhaps in 10 years....

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

K1N - in the Log!

From the Department of "OK, that was a little bit weird":

Just after the SuperBowl, I easily found spots for K1N on 40m - they had just started operating. He was quite loud on the Inverted-L. At that point, the challenge wasn't in finding the DX, but finding exactly where he was listening.

As a belated Christmas present for myself, I bought the KRX3 -- the second receiver option for the K3. After ten months of chasing all the W1AW-portable stations, I became pretty proficient at pressing the REV button and tuning around to find the split listening frequency. Months I spent thinking that this would all be so much easier if I could just hear both sides at the same time.

Adapting to the second receiver wasn't so easy. While I've had a little practice with two radio operation, it isn't easy concentrating on one signal in one ear, and perhaps a bunch of signals in the other. I've had a little time to practice with it, and while it is really handy, I find that sometimes its easier to just listen to one receiver at a time.

In any case, the bedlam I found surrounding K1N was a LIDfest in the extreme. K1N was clearly asking for European stations only, and yet there were thousands of K, W and AA-AL stations calling madly. More than 15 kHz of the 40m band was covered in signals repeatedly sending their calls. It was going to be very difficult to discover the DX stations listening frequency. Add to this mess the number of operators who could not figure out how to properly configure their rigs for split operation. Plus the frequency cops repeatedly sending "UP UP", clearly interfering with the K1N transmissions.

Please, guys. I have written about how to work DX before. You have to LISTEN. Stop transmitting, and listen.

After about 40 minutes of that mess, I turned the rig off. I'd work them later. I hoped. Well, I'd have nearly two weeks of chances.

The next morning, I woke a little early at about 4:30 AM. I felt rested, so I figured I'd go out to the shack and check on K1N.

I half expected to hear K1N on at least 40 and 80m. I had heard them briefly the evening before on 80m, only to hear the operator send VERY TIRED QRX 5 HOURS. Great. (Well, I'm sure those guys were exhausted from the trip and all the setup)

Nothing to be found on 80m, but K1N was hoppin' on 40m. And seems like most of the lids had gone to bed. About five minutes later, I figure out roughly where he's listening (only about 9 kHz of people calling this morning), and it's time to join the fray.

Wait. He's gone. For about five minutes, there's no transmissions from K1N. Then a series of Vs, and he's back - works a couple of Qs, then disappears. Hmm. I keep calling for a while. I figure the generator may have quit, or someone tripped over a cable or something. Might as well call as I'm listening.

That's when something weird happened. You see, I'm using that KRX3 module, listening to the K1N transmit frequency in my left ear, and my own transmit frequency in my right ear. Then, very clearly, I hear "AA4LR 5NN" -- in my right ear. My transmitting frequency. OK, that's not right. I figure it's just some lid out there that's heard me calling over and over, and is just messing with me. Or maybe I'm just sleepier than I thought. I glance up and confirm, visually, that I am indeed operating split. Yes, thank God I'm not a lid -- today.

But, he comes again "AA4LR 5NN" -- insistently. Speed, cadence and strength are about right -- but it is definitely in my right ear. Well, why the heck not: "R 5NN TU" and the reply comes "TU UP" -- again in my right ear. But nothing else.

Right about that moment, the operator must have realized something was amiss. Next transmission is in my left ear - "K1N UP". For a moment, I'm flabbergasted. Did I work him, or not? Well, if I did, I know exactly where he's listening - so I send my call exactly once. "AA4LR 5NN", "R 5NN TU", "TU UP".

There. In the space of 20 seconds -- less time than it takes to read about it, I'd worked K1N twice -- once simplex, once split. Once in one ear, once in both.

About an hour later, I find there's spots on 80m. He's very strong, but even stronger on the trap dipole. The pileup is fresh, and hasn't had time to get as unruly as 40m. In three minutes, I found where he's listening and he comes right back to me.

UPDATE: Looks like he logged me twice as well, as I have two 40m CW contacts in ClubLog. Fine operator!

Saturday, January 31, 2015

K1N - Pumped for Navassa

Back when I first got interested in Amateur radio, I remember an article published in 73 Magazine about a DXpedition to Navassa Island.

This was something of an unusual article for 73 Magazine -- which, at the time, generally focused more on radio technology and construction articles. However, since the publisher Wayne Green W2NSD/1 had been part of the DXpedition, it was no surprise the story was covered.

I don't remember why, but the tale of hauling equipment and personnel up a steel rope and angle iron ladder from an inflatable boat amidst all the waves, surging and swells captured my imagination. You can read an account here.

It would be over a decade later that I would join the Atlanta Radio Club myself, but for some reason I never asked anyone about this trip. It wasn't until nearly two decades later, when I happened to strike up a conversation with Jim Streible K4DLI that I heard the story firsthand. (Ironically, Jim was the father of one of my colleagues at Georgia Tech as well - something I didn't piece together until that conversation)

At lot has happened since those days. When the Desecheo Island DXpedition was active in 2009, I intentionally worked them on as many bands as I could -- since it was clear that it might be decades before it was active again. I logged them successfully on 160-15m, using CW, SSB and RTTY. Given my relative proximity to the DX, it wasn't that hard to work.

Needless to say, I am pumped about the Navassa Island DXpedition. The pileups will be huge, of course, but I expect to work them on as many bands. It will be great fun trying.