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.

 

Amateur Radio Stuff: It’s Alive!

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That spike you see there is the 990 sending a PSK31 signal on 10 meters. It’s working! OMG it’s actually working! Finally! 

The saga of me trying to get operating in digital modes on HF following tearing down my station so I could move in new furniture continues and hopefully it has reached a satisfactory conclusion. But only after a very frustration couple of hours.

I few days ago I commented about the frustrating time I was having trying to get back on the air after putting my radio equipment back together. I primarily use digital modes on HF, usually PSK. And even though everything was set up exactly the same, it wasn’t working. I finally got it working, but only by triggering the transmitter using VOX. This was not ideal, but it did work.

Well, this morning I was going to fire up the equipment and play amateur radio for a while and, well, VOX didn’t work either all of a sudden. And for no apparent reason.

Sigh…

I checked all of the cables. I opened up the RigBlaster and checked for loose wires or bad solder joints and found nothing wrong there. I reloaded drivers, reset all of the settings, tried both Fldigi and Ham Radio Deluxe. Receive worked just fine. The software could control the transceiver just fine. It would even kick the transceiver into transmit mode. But no actual signal was being transmitted. I checked sound levels on the inputs and outputs, checked COM ports and PTT settings… Nothing was working.

After over an hour of this, I was ready to give up. I went through all of the settings one last time, double checked everything, switched the RigBlaster to COM for PTT, clicked the button to do a CQ and…

It worked? It worked??? WTF?

What did I do? How did I fix it? I have absolutely no idea!

Seriously. As far as I can tell all of the settings are exactly the same now as when they were when it wasn’t working. Same drivers, same sound levels, same everything. Only now it works… I must have changed something, but I have no idea what. The infuriating thing is that I must have spent at least four hours over several days trying to figure this out and I still don’t know what was wrong.

Screen Shot 2017-12-24 at 8.56.44 AMOkay, now let’s talk about Ham Radio Deluxe.

Now if you’ve followed this blog for a while, you know I’ve used HRD in the past and did not have a very good opinion of it. It is an extremely ambitious piece of software that tries to do just about everything and anything an amateur radio operator could want in a program. And I had some “issues” as they say. Some of them were pretty serious.

I’m pleased to report that issues I had in the past seem to have been fixed. Customer support seems to be very good. I had a minor issue not long after I bought it, put in a trouble ticket, and got a response back that fixed the problem in just a few hours.

I’m going to keep using it and we’ll see what happens.

Radio Frustrations…

Grrr…. It’s been a very frustrating morning. I recently tore down my entire amateur radio setup in order to bring in a new desk. I have all of the equipment hooked back up and all the radio gear is working, but the software… Arrgghhh…

When I get on the air I generally use one of the digital modes like PSK31. Doing this requires a computer and software to code/decode the digital signals. It’s not that hard to do. Or at least it shouldn’t be.

I have the computer, Rigblaster, transceiver and everything else connected properly. I’m using the exact same computer and software I had running before. All the settings in the software and transceiver are exactly the same. Nothing at all was changed. And before I did the tear down, everything worked just fine and dandy.

Now, though? Of course not. Even though I changed nothing, I can’t transmit for some reason, and it’s driving me nuts. The software settings are the same. The cable connections are the same. The radio equipment is the same. Everything is exactly the same as it was before the tear down.

Only it won’t transmit now for some reason. Spent almost two hours this morning trying to trouble shoot the problem, and have come up with a blank. I’ve checked the software settings, the equipment, everything. Nothing seems to work.

Receive is just fine. I have complete control of the transceiver from the computer. It receives, decodes digital signals, everything. But transmit? Nope.

The transceiver goes into transmit mode. The software seems to be working properly. But there’s no signal actually going to the transceiver.

I remember that I had the exact same problem when I first set this all up some three years ago or so, and it drove me crazy then. And, of course, I can’t remember how I fixed it.

Sigh…

It’s Alive! Sort of

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Spent the better part of the afternoon getting everything set up, all the cables connected and all that, and it’s finally done! Well, mostly. And everything seems to be working.

Mostly because I still don’t have the digital stuff up and running yet. But the TS-990 is up and running, as is the Palstar tuner, the FM-400DR, and even the MFJ amp. So I’m rather pleased with the progress.

Need to permanently mount the grounding buss, that’s the thing way on the left, a big copper bar sitting on top of 2 red insulators. That’s the grounding system for all of the electronics and that needs to have a permanent home rather than perched on top of the amp. Even got the Vibroplex paddle wired up and figured out how to program the TS-990 to deal with it.

Now I just have to get the Rigblaster put in place and connected. That interfaces between the 990 and the computer to assist with computer control of the transceiver and digital communications again.

I didn’t set up the Kenwood 2000, and I’m not sure if I will yet or not. I was using that mostly to monitor signal quality when doing digital work and I don’t really need it.

And I still need to decide what to do with my big boat anchor vacuum tube amp. I got the solid state amp right after I got the AL-82, and never even used the AL-82. I installed the transformer, installed the tubes, hooked it up, turned it on, made sure everything worked, and then got the ALS-1300 amp and used that instead. Probably should just see if I can sell the thing.

 

Amateur Radio Stuff: What’s Going On

It’s been quite a while since I mentioned mentioned amateur radio, but that’s been because of a lack of time, not a lack of interest. Things back in the radio room are about to get — interesting, as they say. I’m facing a situation that every amateur radio operator does sooner or later, having to tear down everything.

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It’s even worse than this looks here. There are two more desks crammed into that room, an old drafting table, three book cases, a work table… It’s bad.

The radio room is, to put it bluntly, a mess. There is equipment piled everywhere, test gear shoved onto book cases or in drawers, amplifiers and radios laying on the floor, piles of printouts of manuals, booklets, stacks of mystery electronics in those anti-static bags, drawers full of connectors and parts, coax jumpers, meters, microphones, tools three full sized computers, three printers, all my Raspberry Pi stuff. There are cables and wires snaking along behind the desks, running into holes in the floor. The operating position is too cramped and awkward. The old drafting table my solid state amp is parked on it is too tall and too small, the desk the radios are on is in poor condition. The list goes on and on.

So everything is going to get torn down, moved out of the room. The room is going to get a good cleaning, etc. Then I start trying to put everything back together.

What sparked this is that MrsGF found a huge old teacher’s desk, made out of solid oak, for $50 at St. Vinnie’s. MrsGF already has one of these and I’d been looking for one for a while. The finish isn’t very good and it has it’s share of scratches and scars, but it is rock solid, lots of big drawers, and is long, wide and deep. That is going to get moved in, some of the old, particle board crap I’ve been using is going to go away before it collapses under the weight of the equipment, and then I can start trying to put everything back together again.

If I can remember how to do it… Meters, jumpers, wires, coax. You’d think I’d know enough to label all that stuff, right? I mean I have a label maker laying right there. But no, of course I didn’t. Sigh…

Anyway, Monday is the day when I start all of this. It’s taken me three years to accumulate this mess and put together that rat’s nest of wiring behind the desks, so this could take a while…

 

Getting Caught Up With Stuff

Water Tower Stuff

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They’re working on the water tower here in town. As someone who gets nervous standing on a step ladder, I can’t imagine how those guys up there do this job. I know they have safety equipment and all that, but still, hanging from a rope a hundred feet up like that? No way I could ever do something like that.

New Computer Stuff

IMG_0566The new computer is up and running beautifully. Very fast, slick computer, but the Nvidia 1050 TI card was damaged in shipment so I’ve been using the motherboard’s onboard Intel graphics. That works, until I do anything that demands any kind of high resolution, high frame rate video, and then everything falls apart real fast. I’ve tried playing Skyrim on it and while it works, the graphics are terrible and the only way to get the frame rate up to acceptable level is to turn the draw distance down so far I can’t even see enemies attacking me from just a couple of hundred feet away. Sigh. Second Life is even worse. Complex scenes with a large variety of different textures don’t render at all, probably because the graphics card doesn’t have enough memory to deal with all of it. The replacement video card is in, but it’s at my eldest son’s house, and he’s gone up north for the weekend, so it’s going to be Monday evening before I can really see what this thing can do.

ES was telling me he had trouble getting the 1050 card, and a quick scrounge around Amazon reinforced that. Every vendor I found on Amazon had disclaimers that the item was out of stock and wouldn’t be in stock for 3, 4 or more days. And that date kept shifting even farther into the future during the past week.

Gardening Stuff

The gardens have been doing pretty good this year, with the occasional glitch. I mentioned we have a fungus attacking the tomatoes because of the very damp summer we’ve had. We aren’t the only one. Almost everyone I’ve talked to has the same problem with their tomatoes this year. One group of pepper plants got pushed over when we had high winds roll through a few weeks ago, and they never recovered very well, alas. Some are doing okay, but others just barely survived. Not a bad thing because we planted way too many pepper plants this year, but still disappointing. Heard the other day that this summer is one of the wettest on record, which doesn’t surprise me at all.