Catching Up with Ham Radio Stuff : The Move and A New (sort of) digital mode

The Move, shifting all of my radio and computer gear to the basement, is now officially underway. Well, sort of. Nothing has actually gotten moved yet. I’m still in the process of cleaning out the area I want to use and getting it ready. But the handwriting is on the wall. MrsGF is retiring at the end of Feb and if I don’t move out of our shared office we’re going to drive each other nuts.

For years now my “radio shack” has been shoved into a corner of the office MrsGF and I share, with all my equipment perched on a single desk and a small filing cabinet. It’s worked, but it has been awkward and cramped. There just isn’t enough room. I have a work table in that room as well where, theoretically, at least, I was going to be able to tinker with electronics and repair equipment. But because the room is also our office, what actually happened was the table ended up with about ten inches of papers, books, files and I don’t know what all else on top of my tools and test gear. To make things even more cramped, I also have a big iMac, various graphics tablets, several RAID arrays, three printers, including a massive professional photo printer, well, you get the idea. Then add in MrsGF’s desk, computer and all her stuff, and something has to go, and that’s me.

Even that wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for my own psychological quirks. I simply cannot concentrate if there is someone behind me. I’ve always been that way. Her desk and computers are directly behind me and when she’s back there I can’t concentrate on anything. I can’t read, can’t write, can’t work on photos or drawings. I also need a fairly quiet environment to get anything done. Soft music is okay, but the sound of someone behind me moving, coughing, talking on the phone… well, I just can’t deal with it.

So between the crowded environment up here and my own personal issues, well, I need to move this whole operation if MrsGF and I are going to stick together for another 40 years or so…

Unfortunately, the area I want to move into looks like this.

This is what your basement will end up looking like if both you and your son are A) packrats, and B) computer/electronics geeks.

This used to be Eldest Son’s workshop in the basement when he lived with us years ago, and represents years worth of accumulated computers, parts, hard drives, terminals, networking gear and I don’t know what all else that he neglected to take with him when he moved out years ago. We never bothered with it before because I didn’t have any use for this space. And now that I do, the first order of business is getting all this stuff out of there, and that’s what I’ve been working on.

Some progress has been made, though! Really.

That bench there used to be covered three feet deep in stuff, so just getting that cleared out is a major victory. I’m hoping that by the end of the week I’ll have enough stuff shifted so I can start painting the walls. I’ll keep that work bench but put a nice sheet of plywood or something similar over the top of it to make a smooth work surface. The radios and computers will go here eventually. We’ll also have to rewire the whole area, adding a half dozen or so 120V outlets and at least one 220V outlet (maybe two) for the amplifiers.

There is another work bench behind me and to the left, about the same size, that is going to be where I’ll have my actual workbench with my meters and test gear, soldering equipment, tools, etc.

Anyway, that’s what’s been going on here of late. I’m sure MrsGF is eagerly looking forward to getting me out of the office so she can move all her stuff in.

JS8Call

I’ve been playing with a fairly new digital mode in amateur radio called JS8Call. It is based on the wildly popular FT8 mode that was first implemented with the WSJT-X software developed by K1JT and others. (WSJT-X is open source and it is available for Linux, Windows, OSX and Unix like operating systems. You can learn more about FT8 at https://physics.princeton.edu/pulsar/k1jt/index.html)

This is what the WSJT-X software looks like when running FT8.

FT8 works well as a weak signal mode, allowing contacts to be made under poor conditions and with modest or even poor antennas and low power levels. But FT8 isn’t designed to actually communicate with other people. It is intended to make “contacts” only. And in the amateur radio world, “contact” means exchanging only enough information to fulfill the requirements of some contest or award program, and not actually talking to another person. In fact, it would be almost impossible to use FT8 to exchange any kind of useful information with another radio operator. FT8 exchanges call signs, a grid reference (location) and a signal report, and that’s it. And all of that is pre-programmed into the system. Once the contact is started, the WSJT software conducts the entire exchange by itself. There are provisions for a so-called “free message”, but it is extremely awkward to use and very limited.

And, frankly, boring. At least to me. Don’t get me wrong, I use FT8 myself. But after about half an hour of it I’m bored. I can’t actually talk to anyone, can’t ask questions, just sit there and watch WSJT go through it’s automated contact sequence. It gets dull fast.

Screen capture of JS8Call running on my system.

That’s where JS8Call comes in. It uses the same digital encoding techniques used by FT8. It still uses the same 15 second transmission bursts. But it permits actual conversations to be held between two operators. Not very quickly, true. It looks like it’s limited to about 15 words per minute or less, but that’s still a heck of a lot faster than a lot of us can bang along in CW.

And since it uses the exact same encoding protocols used by FT8, it shares that mode’s robust nature and permits people with less than ideal equipment and antennas to make contacts they otherwise would not be able to make.

JS8Call has a lot of fun and potentially useful features as well as the ability to send actual text messages back and forth rather than FT8’s limited contact system. Messages can be directed to a specific call sign or a group of call signs. There are directed commands that you can send which will generated automated replies from anyone who hears them, it can relay messages to others if you have it set up right. There is a lot of neat stuff JS8Call is capable of doing. Read the documentation at their website to find out more.

So if you’ve use FT8 but have found it’s pre-programmed, automated contact system frustrating, give JS8Call a try. You can find out more about it at their website. Click here to take a peek.

A few things, though.

First, JS8Call is still very much in beta testing. New versions with added/changed features and bug fixes are being released every few weeks. While the program seems stable, it can have odd little quirks and problems from time to time. How it works and its various functions can change with each new edition of the software.

Second, because it is still in beta testing, it is not available for general release. You can indeed get it, but you need to join a discussion group to get access to the download. It isn’t a big deal. They aren’t going to spam you or anything like that. The reason for restricting access is, as I said, because it is still in testing and is being changed frequently. Once the feature set is frozen and they’ve worked all of the bugs out, a version will be made available for general release.

Third, because it is based on FT8, it has a lot of the same quirks and drawbacks FT8 has. It only transmits in 12.6 second bursts, based on a 15 second time frame. Your computer clock must be accurately synchronized. You are going to need to run a utility program that will keep your computer’s internal clock accurate. Most computer clocks are not accurate enough by themselves.

Fourth, as noted earlier, it isn’t exactly fast. You’re going to average about 10 – 15 wpm when using it. But as I also said, most CW operators don’t work much faster than that.

If you’re interested in the digital modes, are getting bored of FT8, give JS8Call a try.

Don’t Do the IOS 12.1.2 Upgrade!

If you use an iPhone and have not yet upgraded to IOS 12.1.2, don’t do the upgrade!

There have been widespread reports of a variety of different and serious problems associated with 12.1.2. If you have “Auto update” turned on, turn it off immediately so your phone doesn’t download and install the update by itself.

If you already have done the update and your phone is working fine, good. The majority of phones seem to have no problem with the update. But so many reports of problems have been coming in since Apple began pushing out the update two days ago that I’ve been telling everyone I know with an Iphone to put off installing the update until Apple figures out what is going on and fixes it.

The biggest problem seems to be the loss of access to cellular data, which means the phone can no longer communicate with the internet. Other problems including WiFi connection problems have been reported as well. At the moment no one seems to know exactly what is going on or why some phones have been affected and others haven’t.

Apple is supposedly working on a fix (IOS 12.1.3) but no one knows when that will be available.

My general advice to most people is that while Auto Update is convenient, having it turned on is a bad idea because of issues like this. You should never do an IOS update as soon as the new version is made available. You should always wait at least several days before updating to make sure there isn’t something wrong with the update.

There was nothing extremely important in 12.1.2 in the first place. Reports I’ve seen indicate that this update was primarily an attempt by Apple to get around an injunction in China preventing the sale of iPhones because of a patent lawsuit they lost to Qualcomm.

If you’ve been hit by this problem, I’m afraid I can’t help. You need to scrounge around the internet and see if there are fixes available. Or if you have an Apple store nearby, talk to them. If you got your phone from a specific carrier, talk to them about a possible fix.

Here are some hints to help you keep from having problems in the future:

Have an iCloud (or whatever Apple calls their cloud data storage feature these days) account and use it to automatically backup your phone. Then if something nasty happens you can fairly easily restore the apps and data stored on your phone.

Turn AutoUpdate OFF. Wait at least several days after an IOS update it pushed out to make sure it doesn’t have serious problems. Install it only after you’re sure it’s bug free.

Cleaning Up, Snow, Evaluating the Gardens, And Stuff…

MrsGF and I set aside Saturday to clean up the last of the gardens around here. We’ve had several hard frosts now and almost everything has died back so there was no reason to put it off any longer. So, of course, this happened…IMG_0056

Yep, that’s snow. Saturday was pretty miserable. Temperature around 38 degrees, 30 – 40 mph winds and then it started snowing. Oh, well. Ah, Wisconsin weather…

 

IMG_0055We got out the winter coats, hats and gloves and went at it anyway because, well, it has to get done. It wasn’t exactly a fun job in that kind of weather, but we did get it done. There was no point in putting it off because this time of year the chances of the weather being much better are pretty slim.

We ended up filling the entire back of the old truck. It’s amazing how much debris we ended up with after cleaning everything up. And this is just half of it. We already had taken out the remains of the tomatoes, squash and a lot of other stuff over the last few weeks. Good thing we live just down the street from the town’s compost site. That makes this a heck of a lot easier.

The snow didn’t stick around. It was too warm for that. But the wind did, with gusts of up to 40 mph all day. That kept us from raking up the leaves in the yard, but we got that done on Sunday. So we have just about everything cleaned up outside now.

All things considered, the growing season was pretty successful this past season. The tomatoes and peppers were ridiculously prolific. Our little lettuce bed kept us supplied with greens when we needed them. Some things weren’t very good, and some of that was our own fault.

We keep trying to plant onions and they never seem to make it to maturity for us. They start out good, but as they mature they seem to just stop growing before they get anywhere close to full sized. I don’t really mind that too much because my main interest is in having fresh green onions, not in full size bulbs for storage. So while that crop might look like a failure, it really isn’t because I get what I want out of it.

The squash disappointed. The acorn squash never developed fully at all and were a total loss, and while we did get a few absolutely beautiful butternut squash (wow, they tasted good!) they didn’t produce as well as they should have. We aren’t sure why because they were in the same place they’d been last year where they’d done really well. We’re going to have to reconsider planting squash. The stuff takes up a huge part of the garden and if all we’re going to get for it is three squash, well, there’s not much point in planting them and we need to look for alternatives.

Our rhubarb plant wasn’t looking too good towards the end of the season, but we think that’s the fault of the squash which were planted nearby. It was getting shaded by the huge squash leaves and wasn’t getting enough sun, so we’re hoping it will come back.

I raise that rhubarb more for nostalgic reasons than because I like it. For me, a little bit of rhubarb goes a long, long way. But I have fond memories of playing under the huge rhubarb plants we had when I was a little kid on hot, summer days, and whenever I see that thing in hot, summer weather it brings back memories that make me grin. So yeah, I’m going to grow rhubarb if I can even if I don’t particularly like eating it.

Let’s see, what are we planning on changing — I’d like to put in more raised beds if I can find a good location for them. Those two 4 X 8 raised beds I put in a few years ago are ridiculously productive. If I’d known how good they were going to be I would have built them long ago. Just those two beds provide more vegetables than the rest of our gardens combined some years. The problem is where to put more of them. We just have too many trees so finding a spot where there will be direct sunlight for more than 4-5 hours a day is difficult here. About the only decent location is on the south side of the house and there isn’t much room there any more.

Of course that could change if the pear tree doesn’t survive the damage it suffered. I figure about a full third of the canopy of the tree went down because the limbs were too loaded with fruit to be able to handle a thunderstorm that rolled through here. I’d hate to lose that tree. We planted that, oh, about 17 years ago, a couple of years after we bought this place. It’s not a very good looking tree, it leans at a crazy angle, but wow, it produces some of the most delicious pears I’ve ever had.

But on the other hand, if we do lose it, it would open up a very large area that could be garden with full sun. So if it does have to come down, well, it wouldn’t be the worst thing.

With MrsGF retiring in March she’s trying to figure out just what the heck she’s going to do if she isn’t working full time any longer. Right now it looks like as soon as she pulls the plug on her job she’s going to be dragging me along into the Master Gardener classes. Well not dragging, to be honest. I’m rather looking forward to it. We’d talked about getting into the Master Gardener program for a long time but we never had the time to do it. So now is the ideal time for it. She’s been on-line looking to get us signed up for the classes next year. And being able to tack on “certified master gardener” on the byline up at the top of this website is an added incentive because, well, hey, I’ve got an ego too, you know <grin>.

The other thing that is (probably) going to happen after she retires is all of my electronics gear, test equipment, radio equipment, etc. is going to get moved out of the office/library/workshop and moved into what used to be eldest son’s work area in the basement, and the office space is going to be her’s. She loves sewing and craftsy kinds of things but she’s never had much time to actually do it. Right now her work area for that kind of thing is in a small room upstairs. But it’s hot up there in the summer, cold in the winter, and she has difficulty getting up and down a lot of stairs because of her knees. So the solution to that is turn the office on the main floor over to her and have me move my stuff out.

I am not looking forward to moving. Eldest son’s work area down there is still crammed full of old computers and other equipment that somehow never got moved when he moved out years ago. So all of that has to be moved somewhere. Hopefully out of our house and into his house. Then I have to buy or build suitable work surfaces for all my stuff. Then tear down all of my equipment, move all of it down to the basement. Then I have to re-route all of the antenna cables, ground cables and other stuff to the new location down there. Then install a new electrical system down there including 240V lines to run some of the equipment like the amplifiers. Then try to figure out how to set up all of the equipment again because by that time I’ll have forgotten how everything was set up originally. Move all of my computers… Like I said, I am not looking forward to it.

Well, I’ve bored you long enough with this. Time to go.

 

iPhone XS, Photography, Weather & Stuff

After still more rain on Tuesday we were treated to a brilliant double rainbow and the weather abruptly turned very nice indeed. Cool, sunny and dry. Everyone has been taking advantage of the situation to finally get things done. Plus the cool weather has slowed down the mosquitoes so you can at least outrun the little buggers. They’ve been absolutely horrible this fall. The warm, wet weather we had turned into a plague of mosquitoes that has been driving everyone crazy. Even hard-core environmentalists have been out there spraying to try to get some relief.

The new XS

This is the first time I’ve bought a phone right after Apple introduced it. Usually I don’t upgrade until the next new model is out and I can get a pretty steep discount on the previous generation of phone. That also means that by the time I get my hands on one, the bugs have pretty much been worked out of it. The problem with buying brand new equipment is that often things slip through the cracks that don’t show up in the initial testing and don’t become apparent until it’s out in the hands of the consumers. And that seems to be the case here.

There are reports (which I can confirm from personal experience) that while the device is brilliant in many ways, as an actual phone it pretty much sucks. Cellular reception absolutely sucks!

Now I admit that I live in an area where cellular reception is for the service I’m on (Sprint) is definitely not good. But generally with the old phone I would have 2 out of 5 bars showing, and a decent LTE data connection. With this phone inside of the house I have no LTE connection at all and only 2 bars of standard cell reception. Basically this phone would be almost useless as a phone for me if I didn’t have WiFi calling. (The phone uses my WiFi system to do VOIP instead of using the cellular system. That, fortunately, works brilliantly. Calls are rock solid and sound quality is amazing.)

Various tech media outlets have been reporting on this and it’s apparently a wide spread problem. No one is sure exactly what the issue is. There are rumors that it might be the antenna, but no one seems to know for sure. Whether it is something that can be cured in software or if it’s a hardware problem doesn’t seem to be known yet.

The phone is otherwise brilliant. As a media device the video and sound quality is absolutely brilliant, especially with the AirPod wireless earbuds. And the camera in this thing is absolutely wonderful by anyone’s standards, I’d think.

Take a look… Click on the image below to start the slideshow.

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I always thought that if you wanted to take good images you needed a dedicated camera, but this one is just outstanding. The resolution, color, focusing, light sensors, all of it seems to work beautifully.

And everything else seems to work very well indeed. And fast? Wow, this thing is fast. Apps that would poke along with delays and stuttering video now work smoothly. I have a NOAA app that displays weather radar from all over the country and I was used to lengthy delays to load the weather data, render the graphics, display the radar animation, etc. On here it works more smoothly than it does on my desktop equipment.

On a less pleasant note, we got this crap going on out at the old stone bridge on Irish Road, my usual route when I go out on the bike:

IMG_0030.jpg

The old one lane bridge isn’t very picturesque, but it’s still a bit of history around here and seeing people do crap like this to it makes me angry. You’ll note that most of the capstones are missing. This has been going on for ages. Some jackasses seem to take great delight in levering the capstones off the top of the bridge and dumping them into the river below. And now we have the graffiti, people throwing tires and old furniture off the bridge into the river… This kind of thing is very disappointing. Some of us are talking about setting up trail cams in the trees on the approaches to the bridge to try to catch the jerks who are doing this.

Catching Up

As you can see from that image up there, farmers around here are facing some serious challenges as they try to get their harvest in this fall. Right now they’re harvesting corn for silage and generally they have an extra tractor or two out in the field to help pull out the harvesting equipment or trucks when they get stuck. It isn’t like this everywhere. There are a lot of fields that aren’t this bad. But we have a lot of fairly low land around here and it’s still saturated with water from all the rains.

MrsGF and I were down in Madison last Friday and a lot of buildings in town were still sandbagged and there were work crews all over repairing the roads that had been damaged from the flooding down there. I’ve heard estimates of damage in excess of $200 million. This is nothing compared to those poor people in the Carolinas, of course. What they’re going through down there right now after the hurricane is horrifying.

IMG_0001Speaking of MrsGF, over the weekend she braved the mosquitoes to start cleaning up the gardens. She got a lot accomplished but we still have a lot left to do. All of the tomato plants were yanked out, finally. The squash were disappointing. We got a couple of nice butternut squash, but that’s about all. Hardly worth the effort of planting them, really. Not sure what happened there. We had a great crop of them last year. The acorn squash never really developed at all. All we had were a few very immature squash that ended up in the compost pile.

On the plus side, the tomatoes and peppers were wildly prolific this year. The freezer is full of containers of chopped peppers that will probably last us two years, and we probably have enough tomatoes, tomato sauces and soup canned to last us a couple of years as well. I’m really glad I picked up that big pressure canner. We can double stack jars in it and do about 16 pints in one batch.

The canning is finally done. We could put up more pears. The tree, despite the damage from the storms, was incredibly productive this year. We gave away 5 gallon pails full of the thing, gave boxes of them to friends and family, and there are still hundreds of pounds of pears out there. They’re mostly over ripe now. The problem there is when they hit the ground they are immediately swarmed by bees and wasps so anyone who is allergic to bee or wasp stings really needs to avoid our place until the weather gets cold.

IMG_1031There was some damage down along my favorite riding trail from the storms too. Some pretty good sized trees dropped right across the trail near the wooden bridge. The agency in charge of maintaining the trail works with some local people who harvest the wood from fallen trees, so hopefully this will be taken care of in the next week or so and the trail will be open again.

Other stuff…

The reason we were in Madison was so MrsGF could talk to the pension people about financial planning and insurance for when she retires in March. She’s very much looking forward to it, but she’s also nervous about it too despite all of the pre-planning we’ve done. But we’ve been planning this for a long, long time and we’re pretty sure we have everything set up right.

One of the very few perks left to her job after the state got done gutting the benefits and salaries of state employees is that she can convert her accumulated sick time to pay for Medicare supplemental insurance after retirement. The woman pretty much never takes a day off, so she has quite a bit of unused time on the books. Enough, it looks like, to cover our supplemental insurance for about five years after she retires.

The New Phone Story…

I haven’t actually bought a cell phone in ages. I lease the things for a small monthly fee, and at the end of the lease period turn them in and get new ones. The actual cost for the phone averages out to be about the same whether I buy it outright or lease it. So about every two years or so I get a new one and turn the old one in.

So when the lease on my iPhone 7 got close to ending, I decided to get a iPhone 10. Only they screwed up the shipping address and it ended up being shipped back to the warehouse because UPS couldn’t find me, despite the fact UPS is here about 3 times a week anyway.

Turns out this was not a bad thing, because meanwhile Apple came out with the iPhone XS, and I now have the brand new XS Max in my hot little hands for not much more than what the 10 would have cost me. And holy cow, is it nice!

I bought into the whole Apple ecosystem, as it’s sometimes called, long ago. It isn’t so much Apple’s equipment that’s so good, it’s the software and the thought that goes into the little details that makes the whole Apple system so addictive.

Like setting up the new XS. I took it out of the box. I took off the protective covering. It turned itself on and immediately found my old phone, copied all of my data over to the new phone automatically, copied all of my apps over, everything. All I had to do was respond to a few prompts. In about 15 minutes the new phone had everything copied over; apps, phone lists, email, photos, everything, without me having to do anything. The only thing I had to do manually was get online to activate the cell phone itself to transfer my phone number over to the new phone.

The XS Max is, well, wow… Just wow… That display is amazingly good. I’ve been streaming Netflix and Amazon Prime video to it and that is without a doubt the best small video screen I’ve ever seen. And the sound? How the hell do they get sound like that out of those tiny, tiny little speakers in there?

I also ended up getting those dopey AirPod things, the wireless earphones. Yeah, they’re expensive but, well, also just wow…  The sound quality, especially the bass, is amazing. Again, I don’t know how they get bass response like that out of those tiny little things. Sorcery, I suspect.

The AirPods themselves are an amazing piece of engineering and Apple has made using them ridiculously easy. They paired with the phone by themselves. They turn themselves on when you put them in your ear, turn themselves off when you take them out. The case is also the charger. Just drop them in and they recharge. The case itself has its own battery to recharge the pods. Just remember to plug the case into the phone’s charger once in a while to keep it’s internal battery topped off.

And then there’s the camera. Or, rather, cameras, because there are three of them, one of the front and two on the back. That camera is probably going to completely replace my Fuji except for telephoto use. I’ve always been dismissive of cell phone cameras but even I have to admit that the camera in this thing is better than my dedicated camera.

People are claiming it’s too big, but it actually isn’t any bigger than my iPhone 7. What is bigger is the screen because it now occupies the entire front of the phone. There is almost no bezel at all on this thing.

The face recognition thing — As you may know starting with the iPhone 10 it uses face recognition to unlock the phone. Just pick it up, it instantly takes a look at your face and if it recognizes you it turns itself on. Otherwise you have to enter an unlock code. So far the system seems to work flawlessly. It recognizes me even when I have my biking gear on; helmet, sunglasses, etc.

I’m old enough that I am still a bit in awe of the technology that we have access to today. When I was a kid we didn’t even have a dial phone. You turned a crank that rang a bell at the telephone company office and an operator asked you who you wanted to call. We didn’t get a dial phone until I was in like third grade. Now I have what basically amounts to a supercomputer in my pocket.

Anyway, I want to experiment with the camera over the next few days and see what it can do. Watch for a post in the near future with more info about that.

That’s it for now…

Oh, almost forgot. I have a Q&A article in the works now to cover some of the questions I’ve received here, so if you have anything you want to ask about farming, amateur radio, gardening, etc. you can get hold of me at old.grouchyfarmer@gmail.com

 

More Stuff!

Almost as soon as the weather got warmer the bike got pulled out of storage and I was out on it. It took me a few days to get back into it again, but it was easier than I thought it was going to be. Apparently doing the treadmill every day during the winter kept me from completely falling apart and it wasn’t long before it was comfortable to be back in the saddle and putting on more than a few miles.

IMG_0895This is an amazing time of year to be out in the countryside biking around. Everything is lush and green, everything is in flower this time of year. I sometimes struggle between the temptation to keep going to put on some miles in a reasonable amount of time and the temptation to stop every few hundred feet to take photos of some neat plant or flower as I rid around the backroads.

I wish the trail in the lead photo up there was a bit closer, though. The start of the trail is about four miles from town, but once you get on it, it runs for more than 30 miles all the way to Green Bay, with branches leading off into towns like Brillion.IMG_0901.jpg

This year I’m trying an app for my phone called aprs.fi. It uses the phone to tie into the APRS system. Automatic Packet Reporting system. It uses the phone to send and receive little bits of data back and forth to a network. It’s been used by amateur radio operators for many years now to send information, and one of its uses is position tracking. A lot of VHF/UHF transceivers have APRS capabilities built into them, and some transceivers have GPS built into them as well. They can be set up to periodically transmit the position of the radio to permit it to be tracked by others using the system.

MrsGf has a similar program for her iPhone plus the FTM-400DR transceiver in her car has APRS and GPS capabilities. The local ARES group she belongs to is just now looking into using APRS to track members of the group when they’re out in the field. Since APRS/GPS capable transceivers are still pretty pricy they’re looking at the APRS applications available for smart phones. Some work pretty well, others have problems, some serious. The one I use is aprs.fi and it seems well above average in it’s utility and capabilities. When the group was out doing volunteer communications for the Elkhart Lake Triathlon over the weekend a couple of people were using using some of the apps and I was able to track their positions in near real-time on a map.

IMG_0902I had it running when I was out on the bike Saturday and used it to plot my course when I did about 11 miles that morning. You can see the plot in the screen capture.

The question is why would I want to do this? Well, I’m out on the bike, on backroads or trails, and you never know what happens. Accidents, health issues, any number of things could happen that would incapacitate me. Yes, they can use the cell phone to try to find me, but trying to find the exact location of a cell phone is an iffy thing and often very inaccurate. The APRS app uses the phone’s GPS system so it’s much more accurate than trying to use the cell phone system to do the locating.

Certainly it’s a great technology for emergency services and ARES/RACES organizations should almost certainly be looking into it as a way of tracking their operators when they’re out in the field.

Let’s see, what else… The gardens are doing well. We’ve had to do a lot of watering. It’s been pretty dry around here over the last couple of weeks. Temperatures have been fairly cool after the heat wave we went through a few weeks ago.

They drag me into the clinic every 6 months so I spent the whole morning doing that. To make a long story short, everything checked out fine. All the numbers were where they are supposed to be. BP is still higher than it should be, but it’s no where near as bad as it was a year ago so I’m happy about that. And they’re delighted I’ve taken up biking. I think everyone was afraid that once I retired I was going to end up sitting on my butt all day in front of the radio or computer or television and it kind of surprised everyone that I started doing that last year.

The next thing I want to do is put together a low-power (QRP) transceiver that I can throw into a backpack and take out on the trail with me. I think it would be great fun to sit out in the woods or on a trail somewhere with an antenna strung up in a tree and trying to make contacts with just a couple of watts of power.

 

Amateur Radio’s New Digital Mode, FT8. Let the controversy begin…

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Gads, what a mess

Amateur radio has a new toy to play with, a new digital mode called FT8. The name

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WSJT software in action

comes from the first two letters of the last names of its developers, Franke (K9AN) and Taylor (K1JT), plus the number 8 because it uses 8 frequency shift keying. The new mode has only been generally available since late June or July 2017 when it released as a beta. And it almost immediately took over amateur radio down on the HF bands. I’ve seen estimates that claim that more than half of all contacts on HF are now taking place using FT8.

FT8 is a “weak signal” mode, meaning that you can often successfully decode signals that are down around -20 dB. This is not as good as some of the other digital modes out there such as JT65 which can go as low as -28 dB. But it is much, much faster to make a contact with FT8 than with JT65. Like any communications mode, it has advantages and drawbacks. And like most digital communications modes, it requires a computer interfaced to your transceiver.

I’m always up for something new, and with temperatures hovering down around 0(F) fiddling around with FT8 has seemed like a good way to spend my free time over the last few days. I already had the WSJT software installed on my Win10 computer but hadn’t really had much incentive to do much with it until now.

I won’t go into the details of getting the software installed, configured, hooking things up to your transceiver, etc. There are dozens of tutorials out there. How you set it all up is going to depend on your computer, what transceiver you’re using, sound card, etc. In my case I’m using a Kenwood TS-990 with a RigBlaster Advantage, the same equipment I use for my other digital modes.

Initial setup wasn’t too difficult. The FT8 Operating Guide by Gary Hinson was a big help in getting everything working properly and is highly recommended.

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First FT8 contact

Much to my surprise, I actually got everything working without a great deal of difficulty and after getting set up and calibrated I took a stab at calling CQ on 15 meters and actually made a contact. WA7MPG in Canada BC.

So, what’s the controversy I mentioned in the title of this? Nothing less than (drum roll please) the end of amateur radio! (Imagine spooky voice saying that)

Yes, according to some out there, FT8 heralds the end of amateur radio. Well, true, they said the same thing about SSB, packet radio, repeaters, PSK, digital voice, SSTV, dropping the morse code requirement and, well, pretty much every innovation to come along in the last 100 years or so. But this time it’s really the end! Really!

Oh, brother…

The complaints are due to the fact that FT8 is almost entirely automated. Contacts via FT8 consist of brief, 15 second long exchanges of call sign, grid location, signal strength, and then a 73 to end, all done by the software. A click or two of the mouse is all it takes to start the whole process, and then you sit back and watch the computer do the work.

And this is what they’re complaining about. It takes the “human element” out of the whole thing, they claim. It is just making contacts for the sake of racking up another contact in the log. It isn’t “real” amateur radio. It isn’t real communications. It’s just two computers talking to one another.

The arguments are just silly, of course. Yes, it’s real communications. Information is being exchanged. And as for the other arguments, well, the same things could be said about any digital mode of communications; RTTY, PSK, etc. If you monitor the people who use those modes you’ll quickly find that most “conversations” take the form of pre-written and stored messages or macros that are sent automatically. Heck, if you monitor the CW portions of the bands you’ll find a lot of people are doing the same thing even with CW using decoding software and keyers.

Look, amateur radio includes a huge variety of methods of communications, both analog and digital. Everyone has their own favorite thing to do. But there are a lot of amateur radio operators out there who can’t afford to operate a contest quality station with acres of antennas and ten thousand dollar transceivers and amplifiers, but who would still love to log contacts with other amateur radio operators in far off places. FT8 allows people with modest equipment and antennas to use a weak signal mode to make contacts that they normally would probably never be able to make. It doesn’t encroach on the territory of the SSB or CW portions of the bands.

So why all the complaints? I’m not really sure. FT8 has become wildly popular for a lot of very good reasons, and it isn’t going to go away any time soon. Even better, it’s getting a lot of amateur radio operators who weren’t all that active before to start exploring the hobby once more.

Am I going to use FT8 a lot? Heck, I don’t know. I’m one of those very odd amateur radio operators who doesn’t actually like to talk to people. I’m more into it because of the technology. But I still like to get on the air once in a while, if for no other reason than to test equipment and antennas. FT8 could at least make my contact log look a lot less sparse, so maybe. We’ll see.