Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Unexpected DX and Perseids

In this posting is a report on the Perseids meteor shower and some rather unexpected success on VHF and 70cms. As usual, click on the images to enlarge, if you need to.

First the Perseids. This meteor shower peaks around 11 to 13 August each year. The usual drill is for me to watch a large number of stations being received and not manage a contact with any of them. This is especially true on the 2 metre band, where success has been limited up to now.

Therefore imagine my surprise this year when one of my attempts to work somebody far away on 2m actually came off. For several years now I have been calling R1AY who is 1941km away in KP50. Astonishingly I had a two way success with Serge this year. I almost fell off the chair when I saw him replying to my call ...
R1AY replying to GM4FVM's call on 2m meteor scatter on 12 August 2018
Of course on 2m these meteor scatter contacts can go on for an hour or more, so it is not exactly the place for sudden excitement, but that one moment sticks in the mind. That was the first time anyone has replied to me from Russia on 2m apart from moon bounce.

Aside from that, the usual pattern of seeing CQ calls once from all sorts of places and replying to no effect continued this year, and included EU3CZ and numerous others. I could see many closer stations hearing me on PSK Reporter who did not reply, or I did not hear them. However, the R1AY case shows that it is worth giving it a try.

On 4m the Perseids brought me plenty of action
GM4FVM contacts on 70MHz meteor scatter during the 2018 Perseids shower
The contact with OH1MLZ is certainly the furthest at 1686km it was not quite the most notable.

Przemek, SP7VC, has activated many unusual places on 4m over the years, and given me several new squares. At the start of the Perseids he appeared from Guernsey, in a square and DXCC which I already have. "Why doesn't he go to Jersey?" I asked in my ignorance, before noting on his website that he planned to move on to Jersey too.

When I eventually worked MJ/SP7VC in IN89 I had a new DXCC. I had never worked Jersey from here on any band, so that is one for the record book. Not that it was a new square, as GU8FBO gave me that square some time ago.

Another surprise was working SM7CAD on 4m. I have remarked before on the short-term 4m licenses issued in Sweden and how hard I found it to work one. I have worked Curt before several times on 6m meteor scatter. On 14 August I found him working split on 70.1735/70.167. This took a bit of jiggling with WSJT-X and split on the IC-7300, but I was able to get back to him for a very easy QSO.

So Sweden and Jersey get me back up to 40 DXCC on 4m, and 217 squares. on 2m R1AY at 1946km is a new meteor scatter record for me. I heard some stations over 2000km. Not a bad Perseids after all.

New Continent and personal record DX on 2m
144MHz tropo ducting on 5 August 2018 as shown by DXMaps
On 5 August 2018 I worked EA8TJ by tropospheric ducting on 2m. He is in IL18 square, a distance of 3261.69km. It is also my second 2m continent (Africa). It almost didn't happen.

I had just returned from a trip to visit my sister and I saw that stations in Cornwall were working the Canary Islands and Capo Verde. They have a sea path to those places, I don't. They are a lot closer. Despite this I decided to listen.

While watching the WSJT-X screen I saw Chris, GM4ZJI, work EA8TJ. I sent Chris a congratulation text and he phoned me to warn me about the propagation at the same moment. I told him that I could not hear anything. For about 15 minutes I heard nothing and Chris sent me several texts encouraging me to try to work the EA8. It was only at this stage that I realised this was an EA8 and not a mainland Spanish station.

For some reason I decided to beam towards Chris instead. At this point I could hear EA8TJ. I called him and he came back, but when I beamed towards him I lost him again. So I quickly beamed back to what appeared to be North West and he completed the QSO. David, GM4JJJ, went on to work EA8TJ too.
FT8 QSO between GM4FVM and EA8TJ on 5 August 2018

What was happening? My SPID rotator controller had lost its settings and was pointing the beam 120 degrees off the true direction. I managed to run into the kitchen and peer out the window at the rotator which proved that I was beaming the wrong way. The only way I completed the QSO was by running back and forward into the kitchen, setting the beam heading by eye.

Just to put this tropo contact into perspective, it comfortably breaks my personal 2m Earth- Moon- Earth record of 2727km, and my overall non-EME 2m DX record of 2069km which was done on Sporadic E. It is 2m personal best using any form of propagation and I suspect it will take EME to break it (if I ever reach this distance again).

This was no great feat on my part. I was already aware of the path from EA8 to GM4ZJI when I made the QSO. Not only did Chris do this first, but he can claim a GM 2m tropo distance record as he is 6km or so further away from EA8TJ than I am. He phoned to alert me to the possibility and I certainly appreciate that. So Chris gets the congratulations. However, it is still a personal record for me and it tells us something about the propagation.

It certainly is not a totally sea path as it passes over the Cheviot Hills, the North Pennines and English Lake District, over North Wales, then briefly Cardigan Bay before crossing South Wales, but it misses Cornwall and Cape Finisterre.
144MHz contacts at GM4FVM 25 July to 14 August 2018
Putting R1AY and EA8TJ onto my map rather puts the other 2m contacts into the shade. This would be a mistake as there is interesting stuff in there. More contacts with ON4POO, meteor scatter into Germany, IO61 square activated by the EI9E group, and more. But it is the distance of the other two which catch the eye. For EA8 I just happened to be in the right place at the right time and my own efforts at station building almost prevented me working him due to using the wrong beam heading. With R1AY it is different - I have been trying to get him to hear me for years. Maybe he did in FSK days, but this time on MSK144 I saw his report in return, so I know I am getting there.

Is it FT8 which is making the difference these days? Not for meteor scatter where I was using MSK144. Anyway EA8 has been worked from Eastern Scotland before. However, MSK144 is getting more popular and for now almost everybody is on the same frequency. I haven't used FSK441 for years.

What makes a contact significant anyway? Long ones which are almost flukes, or short ones that prove the reliability of the equipment and propagation (and the superior abilities of the mature, yet technically savvy, operator)?

6m Trans-Atlantic and new 2018 DXCCs from nearer home
DX is one thing, whereas proving your all-round abilities by setting targets and beating them is another.
50MHz contacts at GM4FVM 25 July to 14 August 2018
Not so long ago the idea of working across the Atlantic on VHF was a dream for me. That a period of three weeks could contain six contacts "across the pond" on 6m would have been unthinkable not long ago. But when it happens I move on - what is next? I need another challenge. Working all those stations is a great bonus but now I am focused on maximising my DXCC count for this year!

Yes, working OY9JD and GU8FBO on 6m gave me more satisfaction than reaching the US and Puerto Rico. I have worked both Jon and Richard before on 4m and 6m, but on this occasion they provided the 2018 entries in the logbook to bring me to 65 DXCC on 6m this year.

Collecting DXCCs is a different challenge to working DX, at least until you need the last few. It is more about putting in the hours and taking the time to get things right. And you learn things like it is very difficult to work Netherlands and Wales from here on 6m.

I hope I am not becoming too blasé. Faeroes and Guernsey need to be worked, but working the Americas is very nice too.

6m moonbounce reception.
Following a tip-off from David GM4JJJ on 9 August I heard that W7GJ was being received via Earth- Moon- Earth on 6m JT65. At first I heard nothing, but once the moon elevation fell below 4 degrees I had copy ...
W7GJ heard at GM4FVM on 9 August 2018 on 6m JT65B via EME
I always thought that 6m moonbounce was confined to the realms of the "super station". I thought this because I had read it in a book. However, receiving a signal from Lance confirms that with a super station at one end it is possible. I sent a report to Lance and he sent a courteous reply. He encouraged me to call him if I see him again. I tried to hear him again the next evening but only got traces of Lance and meteor scatter traces of others working him.

I think with my station it is unlikely that I will ever make a 6m EME contact, but that is no reason for not trying. Reading how difficult it is in a book just put me off, whereas actually listening showed it is a possibility, however remote.

There is no doubt about it in my mind. Books on VHF operation for amateur concentrate on the mega-stations and the vast antenna arrays. Yep, I need those at the other end to work EME. They help with other propagation modes too. However, nothing beats just turning on and having a go, even if you only have a simple system.

70cms - it is all great
Anything worked by me on 432MHz has to be good. After all, with only a dozen or so contacts over my entire amateur career it is all new. Pretty well every contact brings a new square.

Several very helpful QSOs have convinced me that there is something for me to do on this band. GM0HBK on FT8, plus GM4JJJ and G0XVF on SSB were all good markers as to how far I would be likely to get. However there was nothing else for it but to try the RSGB UK Activity Contest on 14 August and see how it went. Before the contest I got the sequencer working - more of that in a later post.

I was really happy with the way the contest went, hearing well over 30 stations and working 10. There was lots of activity. According to reports from participants afterwards I think that conditions were just moderate. A slight lift would have dramatically improved my contact rate as I heard so many borderline stations. The last half hour was poorer for conditions but I still managed to work some stations rather closer to home during the period.

You may know that my attitude to contests is not really to engage with them. Rather like Jeremy Corbyn in Tunisia, I am taking part but not participating at the same time. I am happy to give away points, but not so committed that I cannot make tea, toast, have a Fig Roll, feed Katy the cat, stretch my legs and make a few phone calls during the session. At my level of limited participation it was GREAT FUN. I lasted for the full 2.5 hours with a good few breaks along the way.

No new DXCC to report (I missed GW and GD during the contest), but I have very quickly reached 15 squares to add to my 5 DXCC. Given that I only have 25 watts and a 12 element antenna I am really pleased with that.

And all this activity has made my map since 25 July look much more promising
432MHz contacts at GM4FVM 25 July to 14 August 2018
70cms seems like an interesting band. Where has it been all these years? I cannot blame anyone but myself. I keep saying that others should try VHF, and then I did not try UHF at 432MHz.

In Summary - what do I mean by unexpected DX?

Before the past three weeks:-
Working Sweden on 4m is not something I had expected to happen soon,
Reaching 65 DXCC on 6m in a year is not something I had expected to happen soon,
Being heard in Russia on 2m meteor scatter is not something I had expected to happen soon,
Working the Canary Islands on 2m tropo is not something I had ever expected to happen,
Hearing a US station on 6m EME is not something I had ever expected to happen,
Working 15 squares on 70 cms is not something I had expected to happen for years.

Phew! What next?

At this stage of the year I expect radio to wind down for the winter. "I expect"?

Some things are certainties. I am certainly taking "The Message" by Grand Masterflash and Furious Five as one of my eight discs to any desert island that I am sent to. And "Police and Thieves" by Junior Murvin (the long dub version please, not the rip-off recorded by The Clash). Do they have to be discs? Could I not have an MP3 version? Anyway there might be certainties with the musical choice, but on amateur radio, as in life, maybe nothing is certain.




Wednesday, 8 August 2018

70cms, television coverage and TVI

Well, my dual band 2m/70cms beam is now aloft, and with a bit of mixing of cables I am now on 70cms. The antenna has 7 elements on 2m and 12 elements on 70cms with a boom length of almost 3 metres. Thus it should in theory match my previous 2m beam with the added advantage of giving me 70cms as well. Claimed gain figures are 12.6 dBi for 2m and 14.6 dBi for 70cms. I might have got more gain from a separate 70cms antenna but another boom is not really practical on my mast.
New Antennas-Amplifiers 2m/70cm dual band beam with pre-amps above the 4m beam at GM4FVM
I have bought from Goran at Antennas-Amplifiers in Serbia before. While this antenna is not cheap, as a dual band antenna it is cheaper than two separate antennas. High quality materials such as driven elements made of brass are impressive. The extra weight of the strong boom raises the overall price once you add the postage, but I am very pleased with it.

Results so far are good and I will go into that in a later post. Well, "good" if you mean beating my previous 2m DX record by a very large margin. That tale is for another day.

Given that I was using some less than brilliant coax on 70cm and also that I have little faith in the Icom IC-7100 as a DX receiver on that band - though it is fine for what it is - I decided to fit a moderately priced 70cms mast head pre-amp.

My experience with the SSB Electronic 2m pre-amp showed me how useful these things could be. However, SSB Electronics products have a high price to go with the high performance. For 70cms I decided to trade down a bit. Another German company, SHF-Elektronik of Darmstadt make a more affordable range of pre-amps for both 2m and 70cms. The 70cms one, "Mini-70" looked just fine and that was the one I went for. To save cabling I used a Bias-Tee arrangement, this time from DK4MM.
Bias-Tee, SHF Mini 70 pre-amp and fitting kit

I know the theoretical benefits of having the amplifier at the mast head, though I am sure that in many situations it is a luxury many people will do without. I have been using shack pre-amps for years. However, as I was doing a new set-up putting the pre-amp at the mast head seemed worth it. The results are that all the signals I have copied so far disappear if I unplug the pre-amp.

Although the pre-amp has RF VOX switching I decided to fit a sequencer. I have bought the Down East Microwaves one. It is very compact in the supplied enclosure. Although in theory all I need is a breakout cable I have decided to mount it in an ABS box with the type of plugs I use on the outside of the box. I have all the plugs and sockets to do it now, but even though it is small it does not fit into my standard ABS box unless I leave the DB-15 plug case off it. Not wanting to be a bodger more than I have to, I have ordered a bigger box. The initial plan to mount it in a plastic food container which came with a Chinese meal has been rejected - but it was the perfect size.
DEM sequencer with 50 pence piece for size purposes
The mast head pre-amp does need to be sequenced, and some day I may add a linear amplifier too. Just with the pre-amp working in VOX mode I can see the SWR spike in the IC-7100 before the RF VOX works. The pre-amp is rated at 150W but even with my 20W I fear that one day the pre-amp will burn out due to the RF VOX delay.

Anyway except for the sequencer, which took a very long time to arrive in the UK and for the tax to be paid so that it could be delivered, everything was up and working. Then I found that my efforts to prevent TVI on 70cms had not gone far enough. Ooops. TVI was still there on 70cms (though not as bad as it was).

This is not really 70cms fault. For a variety of complex reasons the "Freeview" terrestrial TV signal we get locally is limited to a handful of channels. Not enough channels for the FVM household. Whilst more channels are available from the main transmitter at Selkirk, the minor ones are transmitted from there with 3dB less power. Our location is outside the Selkirk service area, and it is officially only served by the Eyemouth TV repeater, which does not carry most of the channels.

The underlying problem stems from the rather strange way the UK implemented the changeover to digital television. If you live outside the UK I suspect that this will sound very odd indeed. I'll not go into it further here. Suffice to say that after years of trying to get a reasonable signal from Selkirk I have given up on terrestrial TV. If like me you live in an area of the UK served by a TV repeater (rather than a main transmitter) your choices are very limited.

We could sometimes get a signal on the minor channels from Selkirk but for much of the time we had patchy reception. Often we could fill in the gaps with internet streaming. The final straw though was Mrs FVM trying to watch programmes recorded from Selkirk which had bad picture break up and finding that these programmes are not available via internet streaming. So we were sitting watching the television equivalent of a migrane headache appearing on the screen, with no alternative at hand. I mean, who doesn't want to watch "The Good Fight"? That Christine Baranski is a bit of favourite of mine ... not that my personal viewing is very important here.

So, simply to improve the number of channels we could see reliably we have installed a satellite system called "Freesat". In the absence of the correct wall bracket, my old T and K brackets which used to hold up the 6m beam and rotator are now in use to hold up the satellite dish. Given that the dish is very light weight it hardly needs such elaborate metalwork. The pole is a bit longer than necessary too but there wasn't the time to cut it. There might be room up there for a vertical on top someday ...
New Freesat TV receiving dish at GM4FVM on oversized brackets and with long pole...
More TV channels.

That's the reason. The fact that the previous very weak signal was overwhelmed by my 70cms signal was not the reason for spending good money getting us a satellite service. Oh no, amateur radio could not justify doing all that. Of course, this money was spent to improve the minor TV station reception. The fact that I can now run full power on 70cms on any beam heading (impossible before) has got nothing to do with it.

Oh no, nothing at all.

I wonder how many amateurs have been blamed for TVI when a weak TV signal was the real cause.




Tuesday, 24 July 2018

Just another day's operating?

I know that I can get lulled into a false sense of normality. Even after some days when not much was happening, a good day seems just normal. Once such good day was yesterday 24 July 2018.

It was not even a major operating day. During the day I went for a hour's walk, watched an hour of coverage from the Tour de France and listened to another hour about the race "on the radio" - i.e. by streaming on my phone. I visited the local Community Recycling Centre (aka "the dump") with the car and trailer to dispose of scrap metal and garden waste, and I went to the post office to sent a QSL card to Vlad ER1SS who I had heard on 4m the day before.

However, the RSGB propagation predictions said that any Es was "looking a bit marginal". Sounds promising that. Every time the RSGB propagation predictions play down the chance of dx I find that things get better. And so it proved.

2 metres.
Not Es here for me, but tropo. However, I heard from Chris, GM4ZJI, a few days earlier to say that he had been heard in Italy in 2m FT8 (1600km). Could this be fleeting Es, and something we would never have noticed before we were all dragooned onto a single frequency?

On 24 July, as so often, was day when I worked ON4POO. I cannot find his name so he has acquired the nickname "Winnie". I have worked "Winnie" 22 times on 2m FT8 since February 2018. This is surprising as I had only managed to work Belgium on 2m from here in one session before that, during the opening of 5/6June 2016. This is the difference FT8 and a few improvements makes - going from one brief opening in 10 years with anyone in Belgium to 22 contacts in 6 months with just one specific station in Belgium. There are several other ON and PA stations who are now regulars on 2m FT8 from here.

I am really pleased to work ON4POO frequently as it proves that the path exists on a regular basis. Unlike many other operators who never reply after the first QSO, at least he gives a contact quite often.

So I can say, as I often find myself doing these days, I never would have expected that to happen.

716km contacts on 144MHz, routinely, seemingly at the drop of a hat.

4 metres.
Now this is the sort of image I like to see on the 70MHz band ...
70MHz shown by DXMaps on 23 July 2018.
For a band with a reputation for being deserted, that is a joy for me to behold. Stations active from Western Sahara to Finland, and Kuwait to Waterford. I think that there are 17 active DXCCs in there.

The non-amateur spots on that map show what could be done if those regions had 4m amateur activity. If that sounds a bit fanciful, the past 20 years has produced a series of such changes.

I managed to work this little lot ...
70MHz FT8 stations worked by GM4FVM on 23 July 2018.
The best dx was to LZ2WO which, at 2308km, which I reckon is pretty good going.

Worth mentioning too was a contact with Ivan, S51DI. Ivan was pretty much everybody's best dx when he came on from Slovenia 20 years ago and started the process of opening up the 4m band outside "these islands".

6 metres
I was musing here at the start of July that I might be able to make 60 DXCC worked on 6m this year. At the time I was on 57. I was surprised to find that I had not worked Wales, Netherlands and Malta, so maybe this year I could do it. I still have not worked Wales or Netherlands (wait for the MS season) nor Malta.

The DXCCs which have pushed me over the 60 mark and now on to 62 were not those fairly nearby places but included Turks and Caicos Islands, Greenland, and Guadeloupe

Once again I have to say that I am really surprised as I did not expect these places to be turning up.

6m has a habit of surprising me. It had been two weeks since I worked Greenland and Turks and Caicos, so I thought the best might be over. I had done some CQ-ing lately, working all comers, but nothing very interesting came of that. Maybe they need my square though. Then on 21 July K4SO called me, and after that I worked two more US stations, which took me aback a bit.

As the RSGB site was being negative about the conditions I thought it was worth trying 6m FT8 again on 23 July. I managed to work WP4JCF, KP4EIT and FG8OJ. A station in Martinique was one which got away. Although I have worked WP4JCF a number of times over the years on JT65, KP4EIT was a new one and FG8OJ was a new country to bring me to 62 this year. And I still have Wales, Netherlands and Malta to hope for. Yippee!
50MHz FT8 stations worked at GM4FVM on 23 July 2018
In conclusion
It must be a bit wearing to hear me constantly saying that I never expected all this to happen. However, I didn't. I am really genuinely surprised by these results. Whether it is Belgium on 2m, Bulgaria on 4m or Guadeloupe on 6m, all of this really pulls me up and makes me think.

It was not as if 23 July was a day when, left to my own devices and with only Katy's food to worry about, I sit here unshaven in my underpants in splendid isolation with a slice of dry toast beside me and work the world (no, I do not do that). But there are certainly days when I am on my own and perhaps I let the domestic chores go a bit, in order to do a bit more radio. But no, yesterday I still managed to reach my weekly target of ten questions right on University Challenge on the television, and pull some pond weed out of the water feature in the garden.

Life comes before radio in my scale of importance. But I think 23 July went quite well in the circumstances, even in such limited time as I devoted to the radio on that day.




Thursday, 19 July 2018

Amateur radio can be an awfully bad hobby

I tried to explain this idea to someone whose first language was not English. The way I put it "this hobby can be a bad mistress" seemed to get lost in translation software.

OK. This hobby can be a bad master.

What I mean is that the amateur should be the master, not the hobby.

Or even the amateur should be the master, not the radio dealers.

Here is an example. I see stations in Japan and the general SE Asian region working into Europe on 6m most mornings in high summer. Yet I cannot work these stations. Often I can hear them, but never have I worked one. I have been heard there, and vice versa, but no contact has resulted.

What needs to be done? (Clue --- in reality nothing needs to be done)

The standard answer screams from the popular radio press. "Buy a new radio", "Buy a better radio", "Get a big tower", "Add a big linear" and of course "Buy this great antenna". I once read an article which said that it is our duty as licensed amateurs to run the maximum power we can, as to do otherwise will result in us losing power privileges.

I don't buy the idea and I don't buy the equipment.

I do like the concept of a nice new radio. I have bought two radios in the past year or two, and they were both second hand (i.e. used). "Pre-loved" as they say. I view it as me providing the money for the former owners to do something else, and me getting a bit of extra value. We both win. Sometimes it is me doing the selling. Used is good, at least until you get to such cheap items that it cannot meet modern standards. This for me mostly means sensitivity, selectivity and drift - because I am mostly a data operator those things matter. An old rig is grand, but if it drifts so much that nobody can decode you then it fails to be sensible.

So, if I believe my cruel mistress master, if I want to work those Asian stations on 6m, I will need a new radio, a big tower, a bigger antenna and a full-legal linear. I am not doing it.

A better station for me also means more breadth of frequency coverage. I keep going on about this. I prefer three good radios to one superb one (at the same total price). I am not going to concentrate on 6m because I also need to do a good job on 10m, 4 and 2m. Next thing, 70cms.

Those amateurs who really feel that their radio is the limiting factor in the their station may well be right in their unique case. Certainly the dealers stand ready to relieve them of their money. Likewise the many who use their kilowatt HF amplifiers on 6m and come on with dipoles, RG8 co-ax and wide signals. Neither the radio nor the linear is helping with the limiting factor in their setup.That is a matter for them. I once had an hour long conversation with a 6m operator who could only talk about various types of linear amplifier. Isn't there more to this hobby than that?

A different example is the upgrade of my 2m station. OK, if I sound a bit smug that is because I feel a bit smug about it. I rejected the legal limit linear, and I rejected the well above legal limit linear too (though I might have had some small improvement in linearity I do not run full power out of the one I bought anyway). If I had used my budget for either of those I would not have the money to put together a well balanced system. The key improvements were the better coax and the masthead pre-amplifier. Suddenly I could work stations I could never even hear before. I could still only transmit like a 200W station, but I could now hear like a 200W station too. If I had gone for the bigger linear I might have been able to be heard better, but what is the point of that? If I cannot hear people how can I work them?

I am  not saying that every dB of improved performance does not count. Of course it does. Some radios are better than others, and 3rd order intercept points matter. However, I do not see any point in pursuing that final quantum of performance at any one stage when the rest of the system wastes it. A good pre-amp did more for my 2m system than caving in and buying a new radio.

I am trying to bring a systems approach to my 70cms development too. I have thought about everything from the microphone (or keyboard?) to the antenna. I am using some good M&P coax I already have. There are a couple of short lengths of old stuff which will have to do for now. I could buy a really good mast head pre-amp and an off-the-shelf sequencer. What I have decided to do is to buy a moderate performance pre-amp more in line with my power level (at the moment only 35 watts). Instead of the off-the-shelf sequencer I am trying to cobble together my own solution with a bias-T to save cabling. Whilst I will not have a linear for now, the sequencer and pre-amp would allow up to 150W at some future date.

Believe it or not, choosing my own lash-up over the off-the-shelf parts saves over £250. This astounds me as it was the cost which was putting me off. By designing a system which has the right components I am actually saving money compared with what those nice dealers offer me. What I couldn't afford suddenly becomes possible.

This is not an Earth-Moon-Earth capable 70cms setup. Or at least, it isn't designed to be. It is designed to be vastly better than no setup at all. Adequate, not excessive.

So what do I mean about this being an awfully bad hobby? Well, unless you realise what you are in this hobby to achieve, you can get hooked by the commercial hype. If you can see that you cannot work East Asian stations on 6m and think maybe you just spend money to achieve it - then you are hooked. There is a network of people ready to massage your ego and take your money. This new rig (antenna/linear) will solve your problem instantly, sir. But will it? Sure, it is a great bit of kit, but what is the point if I connect it to a shit bit of cheap old coax?

There are some of us who could easily be persuaded that if things are not going fast enough then press the accelerator harder. Perhaps a better plan would be to work out a more direct route rather than pressing on along somebody else's route. The advertisements are very seductive. They offer instant gratification - a man from a security company in a crash helmet used to deliver your radio. These days it is FedEX, but the idea is the same. Next day delivery and your problems solved. Push harder, buy bigger, beat nature by working further. Bullcrap. Well, it is for me.

I have lovely gear, funded by deep pockets. Not everybody can do that. I am lucky. But I refuse to accept the much peddled delusion that the radio (linear/tower) is the master. Perhaps I am not the master either. Maybe it is the ionosphere, nature, science, creation or whatever you wish to call it which is the boss here but it certainly isn't Mr Kenwood and his ilk. There is no reason at all that I would buy the idea that one brand of radio or another is "best". They have all made lemons in their time. I just am not going to shell out on what some other person thinks is best for me.

It just galls me that they don't make a radio I would want to buy anyway. The IC-9700 is rumoured to be at least a year away and a replacement for the ancient TS-2000 is just that too - rumoured. But I can wait - now there is an idea that the commercial radio trade does not like.

There is a big snag to this gravy train. Suppose I did splash out on my £8000 radio and all the bits. Suppose I could work the world with ease. What would be the challenge then? Nothing. The money would have been totally wasted. Many years ago I watched somebody try to buy themselves a stairway to radio heaven. He lost interest within six months of buying his dream. Who wants his budget busting Yaesu FT-ONE now? Who even remembers what it was?
Yaesu FT-ONE (photo eHam)
Stairway to heaven? Where is Rolf Harris now anyway?

So by rejecting my cruel mistress I am exchanging nirvana for hours of listening to white noise, cobbling together sequencers and frustrating problems. It certainly isn't instant gratification as the parts for the 70cms system are coming from Serbia, Germany and the US. After a month almost nothing has arrived. The pre-amp is out of stock, the UK Border Agency are examining the antenna and the only thing which has reached me is a £50 bag of N-type plugs. Ordering the sequencer board seems to have thrown the supplier into complete chaos. Rather like Schrodinger's cat (which was both alive and dead at the same time), the board is in stock ready to send in 3 days and not available but built to order in 6 weeks, and both at the same instant. But I love it. The anticipation is almost better than anything.

This can be an awfully bad hobby if you use your wallet in place of using your brain.

If my 70cms lash-up doesn't work, who cares? Start again and think of the savings Jim.

It might be a mess, but it will be my mess.

I would rather be engaged in this hobby than an aimless buyer of kit. If that means opting out of working Asia on 6m every Summer's day then so be it. It's just the way it is. Some things will never change. I cannot have everything and to be honest I don't want everything anyway.

The secret to being at peace is to realise is that everything isn't available in any case.

Maybe I should think about that more often.




Wednesday, 18 July 2018

DX Maps

DX Maps has got new mapping ...

DXMaps showing 6m on 18 July 2018 with East Asia stations reaching Europe

The new style is clearer to my eyes - though I have some colour blindness(!)

Gabriel has explained here  ...

... that recent price rises by GoogleMaps have forced him to relocate to another map provider. He makes the point that many users do not realise that bulk users have to pay for GoogleMaps (I never thought about that myself). Clearly the cost of running DX Maps runs to thousands of Euros per year, and we can offset this by looking at the advertising, plus paying optional membership fees and donations.

I have sent Gabriel an additional donation as he has had to pay for more server space and he has had to re-write lots of code. I do not think this is really a money issue. This man spends hours of his own time doing this for us, and I appreciate that. I would be lost without DX Maps.

The only down side with the change is that we have lost satellite view. Yes, I liked peering into back gardens and seeing antennas. That was just satisfying the voyeur side of my personality, and it doesn't really matter.

Well, the scale bar has also moved from the bottom right corner to the top left corner. That will take me ages to get over, but it hardly matters either. What does matter is that we still have DX Maps.

If you have not seen DX Maps, the link is on the side bar of this site.

Thanks Gabriel.

PSK Reporter now uses similar mapping now too. Some of the place names and country titles in PSK Reporter have moved into local versions - I must improve my grasp of Cyrillic characters and Arabic script. The maps are fine though.



Tuesday, 10 July 2018

The two people who discovered radio

David, GM4JJJ, recently introduced me to this podcast "Great Leap Years" by the polymath and boulevardier Stephen Fry

In it, Mr Fry outlines the development of science and technology from the dawn of tools to the modern day. You have to sit through rather a lot of it (6 episodes, 50 minutes each), and there is just one person talking all the time. However, I found it very interesting.

You can find it "by searching for Great Leap Years wherever you get your podcasts" (as they say).

It is similar but has a wider scope than the BBC "In Our Time" science thread. These progammes go into more detail about particular subjects which might interest a radio amateur, like the Sun, the development of Radio, Plasma, Radiation, Conductors and semi-conductors, the Electron etc. And at least in "In Our Time" there are four people talking.

However, there seems to be a gap between all these programmes. The earliest idea of radio seems to fall between them. So here comes how I understand it - I am sure I have got some of this wrong but I will try.

This posting seems to flow from what Adam Rutherford said this week in another podcast I follow - the BBC Inside Science programme - he said that diverse science is good science.

The two key people in this story could hardly be more diverse. They did not fit easily into society. One was the son of a labourer who had little education as a result of his poor upbringing. Yet this man, Michael Faraday, made the crucial experiments that paved the way for those who came after him. While had a had a limited education he was no slouch as a thinker - he came up with his field theory which reshaped our idea of physics right down to today's quantum theory. The other was a rather impractical awkward genius, a man who spent his entire life in academic study. He was born into a world where he could afford to go to university when few others could. This second key person was James Clerk Maxwell, whose equations explained radio before we knew what radio was.

Or course neither of these men knew what radio was, nor what it could be used for. However, they fathomed out that there must be radio. This is an outstanding achievement. Faraday found the key by proving to himself that light was a form of electromagnetic energy, and Maxwell picked the idea up and drew the remarkable conclusion that between the low frequency fields in motors, transformers, etc., and light, there must be an entire spectrum of electomagnetic waves. Maxwell produced a mathematical proof that light was an electromagentic phenomenon, and he established the rules by which this radio energy would propagate. Not bad for two people who only had the idea of something which might be radio in their heads. They had no proof, but yet they were right. 

Scientists fit into a flow of progress. They do not work in isolation. They "stand on the shoulders of giants", and can take what was proved before as read. In this case the person who went before was the Danish academic Hans Christian Oersted (1777-1851). Oersted had recognised the relationship between electricity and magnetism in 1820. This opened the door for further experimentation into what use this relationship might be (apart from moving compass needles).

Enter the field at this stage Michael Faraday (1791-1867). Faraday was born in London. His father  was a blacksmith who had moved from the North of England to seek employment. Michael had a poor upbringing and he was apprenticed to a bookbinder. He became a very skilled craftsman and found a job as assistant to Sir Humphry Davy, an eminent scientist of the time. This was very much a master-servant relationship, as Faraday's lowly background was likely to mark him out for a limited career. Instead he became a more distinguished scientist than Davy.

While Faraday prospered under Davy and eventually achieved eminent status himself, he remained an experimenter. His was practical science. He was not much into theory and it could be argued that his "field theory" was in fact a layman's way of explaining what he was finding. Anyway, it was perhaps the first "non-Newtonian" approach to physics and it certainly makes a lot of sense to me. At the time he was seen as being rather "left-field".
Michael Faraday giving the Royal Institution Christmas Lecture in 1856 - Wikimedia Commons
Nevertheless, Faraday's gift for experimentation was prodigious and he is mainly remembered for developing the understanding of electromagnetic induction. "Faraday's law of Induction" is still with us, and we have him to thank for the development of electric motors, transformers and inductors.

He never quite shook off his non-academic background, despite accepting an honorary university degree. His experiments made many developments possible and he continued to make apparatus and search for the links between various phenomena.

Eventually in 1845 he hit on the one experiment which opened the door to radio. He was placing crystals inside a strong electrically generated magnetic field. He tried various type of glass before trying a piece of glass with a high lead content which he has cast for an earlier experiment.

He noted that when light was shone through the glass the polarisation of the light changed when the voltage (and hence the strength of the magnetic field) was varied. Indeed, if he varied the field strength the polarisation varied in proportion to the change in field strength.

This is an interesting result but maybe not dramatic if you did not have Faraday's natural understanding of physics. He was certain that this result was produced because light is a form of electromagnetic energy (and he was right). This was quite a leap. You can see what he was getting at, as this effect must be due to an interaction between the light and the changing field it was passing through. He knew that the field is electromagnetic, so he deduced that the light must be too.

While the result of Faraday's experiment was just a finding, the conclusion he drew was dramatic. He had his field theory so he was sure that this proved that light is another form of electromagnetic energy, just like the energy he had been using with motors and transformers. It was a huge leap of faith but he immediately staked his career and reputation on it. Remember, this was a man who was largely self-taught. He could have exposed himself to ridicule if he had been proved wrong.

Sometimes I wonder at how Faraday was so certain he was right. I know he was right, but then I know that his field theory is now accepted as "the way things work". Back then he was seen as rather cranky for stepping beyond Newton's theory of objects bumping into each other. He was known for transforming voltage using transformers in his electromagnetic fields, and suddenly he has placed light in the same world. It must have been a brave thing to do.

Now James Clerk Maxwell (1831 - 1879) enters the stage. Maxwell's story could hardly be more different to Faraday's. Born into a well-to-do Scottish family Maxwell had a good formal education. Not for him an apprenticeship, he attended university and was a gifted mathematician. What he lacked was Faraday's practical skills. This is where the two great men built on each other's strengths.

Maxwell looked at all of Faraday's work and trawled it through his mathematician's filter. Eventually out of this Maxwell formulated twenty equations in 1861 and 1862 which basically define the electromagnetic world. He had come up with a unified theory of electricity, magnetism and light.

Why did this matter? Well, Faraday had found the particular - that polarisation of light can be affected by electromagnetic (EM) fields in the specific case of his experiment. Maxwell generalised the idea into a set of principles that can be applied all the way from DC right up to gamma rays, with the then undiscovered radio spectrum in between.
James Clerk Maxwell at Cambridge University in the 1850s - Wikimedia Commons
Today we know four Maxwell equations, because Oliver Heaviside (it's that man again) later generalised and simplified (!) them further. I am not going to explain them as I do not have the mathematical skill to do it. But the result was immediately apparent even in the original form. If these equations were all true then the property we know as electromagnetic energy will exist in a continuous spectrum of wavelengths and with frequencies from fractionally above DC to infinity.

One way of proving that the equations were true was to find the speed of these phenomena. The equations predict that they travel at the speed of light. And, luckily, light does travel at the speed of light, and so did the low frequency waves they already knew about. Once we had found radio, guess what, it travels at the speed of light too.  Maxwell predicted that these were all the same phenomenon (and he was right about that).

If we had discovered radio before we measured the speed of light, maybe we would say that light travels as the speed of radio.

In Faraday's time they knew about low frequency EM fields which were used in motors and transformers. And then he concluded that light was also an EM phenomenon. Maxwell reasoned that there must be every frequency in between. Neither of them had any idea what radio might be, but together they worked out that it must be all around them. Up to that time, nobody had tried to detect any of this radiation. Nobody knew it was there.

Faraday and Maxwell met and corresponded. Faraday once said that he had a perfect idea about his theories until Maxwell came and did all his mathematics on them, and now he didn't understand them at all. Maxwell said that without Faraday's experiment with the polarisation of light he would never have grasped the point at issue. I think that neither of them could have functioned without the other.

Then, as always, science moved on. It fell to the German Heinrich Hertz (1857-1894) to prove that frequencies between light and AC existed as EM waves of different wavelengths. He successfully created and detected radio waves. They were then called "Hertzian Waves". Thus in a sense Hertz "discovered" radio in 1886, but in reality he was seeking to establish what Maxwell had already proved - that radio must exist. It seems to be a pity to me that it was not Faraday who did the necessary experiments, but they were done in university laboratories after his death.

Finally, despite my contention that these two discovered radio, it was "invented" by others. Faraday and Maxwell may have proved it was there but they were silent about what use it might have. Hertz who did actually find it saw no practical application at all. So it had been discovered, but Marconi and others "invented" a use for it. And we are where we are now.

Fifteen years ago I visited Parton Kirk in Galloway where Maxwell is buried. He has a simple memorial, for like Faraday, he was not given to airs and graces. I stood and thought by his grave stone for quite a while. It is strangely fitting that these two great thinkers who took great leaps of faith in their science should be modest individuals. They stuck by their principles, whether they were scientific or ethical. They were awkward characters, and neither fitted into society easily. Yet they had the ideas, and stuck to their beliefs.

I think it was because these men were so different that they made such remarkable progress.

It took a different, more outgoing, personality to push radio into the public's consciousness. Marconi was more of a showman, more of an applier of science than a theoretician (though he did plenty of experiments). He "borrowed" ideas from far and wide. In any team you need people with many different skills.

I think that there is room in our hobby for all sorts. These two scientists were fundamentally just a good self-taught mechanic and an academic thinker. We still have these types amongst us - the practical circuit builders and the theoretical egg-heads. The hobby needs them and all the rest if we are to progress.

Frankly, I cannot see the point of many aspects of our hobby. Then again, who am I to judge others? It takes all sorts. Difference is good. Otherwise, we wouldn't have had radio in the first place. Maybe nobody would have looked for it if we had not had these two odd-balls.




Sunday, 1 July 2018

Good openings on Es and tropo

The peak Es season has been accompanied by nice weather at GM4FVM-on-sea. The weather is significant as it has been caused by a high pressure system over the North Sea, producing tropo conditions between here and what the British call "The Continent" (meaning mainland Europe).

As I reported on 6m recently, just a little about that band. There have some more blisteringly good Es openings. I have made a list of countries I have not worked this year. These DXCC should not be difficult to reach and I have concentrated on them first. They are all in the Balkans or Eastern Mediterranean - I am targeting my distant cousins as I have "The Levant" in my heritage. The far end of the Med might be in my blood and my DNA, but I have been ignoring it as an area to work this year.

Making a list transformed my coverage. Simple targeting netted Libya, Cyprus, Turkey, and several Balkan states such as Montenegro and Macedonia. It turned out that although I had worked Turkey before, all the rest were all-time new countries too. It is funny how the mind plays tricks on you as to where you have worked and where you haven't.

Anyway, all this has got my 2018 6m DXCC list up to 57. There are still 6 states on my little list as obvious targets, never mind the less likely ones. I might yet get into the 60s, but I doubt if I will challenge The Great and The Good in the 80s and higher.

Without some target to shoot at I was languishing in the doldrums.

4m has been a spectacularly great band, something it does often but not regularly.
Contacts on the 70MHz (4 metre) band at GM4FVM in June 2018
Nearly all of these contacts have been on FT8 mode.

Not bad for a band many amateurs choose to ignore because of its reputation for there not being much activity.

When it comes to 2m, the tropo openings at the beginning and end of June have been main drivers. While 6m waxed and waned, being silent for two days, 2m served up the usual tropo opening diet of North Sea Coast contacts.
Contacts on the 144MHz (2 metre) band at GM4FVM in June 2018
I had already mentioned the early June activity and the Es into Croatia and Bosnia before in this blog. The late June tropo added to the picture.

Just to see the effect of the tropo activity, on 23 June I made 5 QSOs, on 26 June I made 64.

And now for something completely different.

Although I think of myself as a VHF operator, I do run 10m as an indicator of VHF conditions. I am genuinely interested in 28MHz activity in its own right, but also for the light it sheds on VHF. It is the next neighbour down the hill. I don't pay much heed to the neighbour up the hill, 432MHz - the "70cms band". Maybe I should. ("The hill" I have in mind here looks like the same hill as the one in the 1973 Ridley Scott "Boy on Bike" Hovis bread commercial).

A certain amateur from "the Continent" has been goading me to get going on 70cms. Another has been telling me about the joys of using UHF in general. All this began to wear down my resistance.

In one of my rambling outpourings about my imagined antenna dilemmas, I said to David, GM4JJJ that I had not decided whether to add an extra element onto my 2m yagi for EME, or put up a 70cms antenna instead. In passing David mentioned that in the past he had used his 2m antenna on 70cms. So, I thought, why not try the same thing during the current good conditions ... ???
To say that I was surprised to work LA9NKA on 70cms would be an understatement. I had just turned over to 70cms and set the WSJT-X to 432.174 to see what I might hear while I was out for a walk. When I immediately had to reply to a CQ I had to be a bit careful not to blow up the 2m ancillaries. I turned off the 2m linear amplifier as otherwise it would not have liked the 70cms signal. I also turned off the 2m masthead pre-amp. Turning them off allows a (low powered) signal to pass through. It works in the short term but over time I would inevitably forget to turn them off someday.

I was using a 7 element 2m beam of the DK7ZB design. It has a balun which I suspect will not help much on 70cms. It turned out that LA9NKA was using a 5/8th vertical. Using such "non-DX" antennas just shows how good conditions much have been on 70cms.

I only tried this because I could. If I had the normal 2m transverter set-up I would have had to change over lots of plugs to do it, but as I had the IC-7100 connected up for 2m it was fairly easy to change over. Just why the IC-7100 was in use was the result of a complex tale of incompetence by me, but never mind that now.

To work one new DXCC at UHF was interesting, to work two was startling ...
To be fair, I think that OZ1JMN was using a proper antenna. But still not a bad QSO.

So my 70cms DXCC goes from two (G and GM) to four (G, GM, LA and OZ). I am astounded.

I am now thinking more about the possibility of a 70cms antenna.

This needs to be taken with a bit of caution. I am not deluding myself that there is a lot of activity to be heard on 70cms from IO85 square. They used to say the same thing about 70MHz but it never put me off that.

There might only a few days when anybody at all can be heard on 70cms from here. The same is true of 2m Es, but it is brilliant when it happens.

I have always known how good 432MHz can be during tropo openings, and occasionally at other times. Now I have proof.

Of course I shall always be only a VHF enthusiast. Except when I am doing something else.