Monday, 23 March 2020

On why I both love and hate ON4KST chat

It is not that I don't like KST chat, I just feel uncomfortable about some aspects of it.

I like to see amateur radio as a family. We go our own way in this family of ours, keep separate but basically we know we all spring from the same stock. Every so often we get together and chat at family events, then we leave each other alone for a while.  Great Aunt Summits-on-the-Air sits in the arm chair puffing on her pipe and chats to buxom young Cousin FT8 pulling on her Cuban cigar. The old timers, Grandad CW croaks at decrepit old Great Grandmama RTTY who is wheezing but strangely still going. And they are all welcome in our family (for an hour at Christmas anyway).

KST is to my radio family what old uncle Freddy was to my real family. He is the one who stays in the kitchen. We do not like to mention the time he knocked the cyclist down in Dublin while driving drunk. We would rather he did not play a major part in our get-together. Sure, he is one of the family, but not everybody likes him so much.

If you do not already know, KST is a message board which allows amateurs (for this purpose on low band VHF, 2m and 70cms, or microwave bands) to chat on the internet while pursuing their amateur activities. There are also boards for lower bands, moonbounce, etc., and it is very popular indeed.

This one is not on my sidebar, and you can find it here

I have no doubt that KST chat is hugely successful because it works well for those who use it. Not so well for me, as I have found, but huge numbers of QSOs take place thanks to KST which would never take place otherwise.

What's not to like? All those great people, who Mrs FVM calls "all your little friends", are there. I will not list the names. I would l just forget some people and annoy them. It is great to chat to them. I learn a lot. Good people with interesting things to say.

So it is definitely not any of those people who are the problem with KST chat.

I value "all my little friends" and I should talk more often to them. 

I enjoy other aspects of it too.

Just now there is a bit of a tropo lift going on. I worked Niels Erik, OZ2ND, last night on 144MHz. then today I worked him on 70cms. Then while he was still on 432MHz he asked me to go to 1296MHz. We did and from the start I could see his trace on my waterfall. Every time he was txing I saw it (that turned out to be over 70 times). But in those 35 minutes I only decoded him twice - which was all we needed. A great QSO on 23cms, 690km QRB (by far a new dx record for me on 23cms), plus a new country and square on that band of course ... hard work ... and we used KST.
QSO with OZ2ND on 1296.174MHz FT8 on 23 March 2020.
Not that we set it up on KST. We used radio for that. The whole QSO was completed using just radio. What we did was confirm to each other that we were making progress and it was worth carrying on. No reports, callsigns or confirmation were conveyed as these were done first by radio too. It just provided reassurance to both of us not to give up too early.

This seems to be a useful function of KST, especially on 23cms. When are you ever going to find anybody on 1296.174 by calling CQ? It has happened, but not so often. I have used KST for chat during long meteor scatter QSOs too, and so long as you do not exchange the data which should go by radio first and foremost, it can be very useful.
Speaks for itself really, but you do not see the missed decodes.
So what is the problem, Jim? I find that KST narrows my horizons. I like to run multiple bands and follow the propagation. I find it cumbersome to keep yet another screen running, and certainly not three screens at once (low VHF, 2m and 70cms, and microwaves) all at once. There are useful variations on the KST format - e.g. wtKST - but this is essentially the same information provided in a (better) way.

I have found by comparing the results of others on 6m using their KST compared with my 10m and geomagnetic monitoring, I routinely find openings before they do. However, when I post something I find that other, nice good amateurs, start asking me for tests, and I get stuck somewhere even when trying to tell them I need to go QSY. Sometimes of course this works, such as working Japan on moonbounce, but that was great because it was the exception. Too often I find KST clouding my thinking unless I use it selectively and briefly.

What I really do not like about KST is those amateurs using it who become entirely reactive. One OM who I tried to set up a sked with on 23cms just replied "Meep me on KST sometime", meaning use the call function which makes a distinctive "meep" sound. Well, sorry mate, I want to try radio, not wake you up from your slumbers. Anyone who relies on the rest of us to call them via the internet to get them to listen to the radio is on a slippery slope, in my humble opinion.

That is what I do, I listen. I search. I investigate. I don't wait to see who can be bothered to call me on my computer. Maybe that suits him, as he might be working in the shack most of time. I guess I might work differently.

When I suggested this to another amateur ages ago (one in a different DXCC, South West of me) during a 144MHz SSB QSO, he took exception to my views. "What? How can anyone not like KST?". I replied that it does not work well for me. "You are an IT Luddite then" he snapped. (If you don't get the British historical reference, Ned Ludd the person did not exist, but he is supposed to have led the movement called The Luddites who tried to prevent the progress which led to the Industrial Revolution)

Erm, I do not think I am a IT Luddite. First of all I seem able to build computers and do moderate coding, and indeed I used to write the health service purchasing software almost single handedly (modestly put Jim). Nor do I think that am I behindhand in recognising the use of IT to help the hobby. I just do not like the idea of sitting back here and becoming a KST Jack-in-the Box. I am not about to spring up from my slumbers and snap into action when Meeped. This is because I am already in action.

OK, that "Luddite" interchange was a few years ago. I have mellowed a bit since. Imagine how un-mellow I used to be. Having used the WSPRnet chat before WSPR started losing ground (surely the subject of another posting soon), I do also use the NOUK chat for EME. And I use KST for some contests, for microwaves and lately just because now is the moment we all need to be talking to each other. However, it is turned off now and I am listening all over the bands as usual. I am not saying that chat rooms are a method of enslavement, but I am saying that I refuse to be enslaved just in case they might be.

There is an argument that any use of KST is bad for the hobby. I do not agree with that either. Provided KST is not used to complete a QSO which otherwise would not occur I cannot see a problem. You are entitled to disagree, and you do not have to use it if your do not want to. It is not compulsory. However, those snippy comments on contest boards "No KST here!" are principled but ultimately pointless. We cannot un-invent it.

Many years ago, my tutor at Napier University said that my writing style was argumentative. I must put him straight about that some day.

So now I hold my nose and use KST. It helps people know I am here and still transmitting. For UHF it seems almost essential. At heart it is no different from sending an email or a text, but I find that I can get hooked on a chat room and forget why I am in this hobby at all. I am not here to pursue one aspect of operation to the exclusion of all others. Sure, if you find all you need on a single KST screen, then go for it. I do other things as well.

If we do disagree on this we can always meet at the family gathering and talk away about what unites us. And old Uncle Freddy is still part of our family and we still want to welcome him into the party and give him a pint of Wee Heavy (though I think he should stick to a half of 60/- ale).
Just like my happy radio family? The Munsters Cast 1964 (Wikimedia commons)

With the passage of time my hazy memory of Old Uncle Freddy reminds me of Fred Gwynne's character Herman in the Munsters. Freddy got off the incident where he mowed down the cyclist. By this I mean that he avoided jail (the cyclist didn't come off well). The fact that his son is a very good solicitor was something to do with it. We keep all our stuff in the family you know.

Clearly ON4KST requires a large voluntary effort to keep going. It is not perfect, but nor is it terrible. Lots of people find it very helpful. I take parts of it, but I cannot get on with other parts of it. So, I accept that I am a duplicitous freeloader, but surely not an IT Luddite.

(Let the IT Luddite thing go Jim, it has been years since he said it)



Monday, 16 March 2020

Farewell, FT-817 and accessories

I am starting to write this posting from Madeira, where we are on a short holiday.

Lest you think I am living a jet-set life style, I might point out that for many years I have generally limited myself to one return aircraft journey per year.
Julie Walters (left) playing Mrs Overall in Acorn Antiques (photo Wikimedia Commons)

I really like Madeira and we have been here three times over the past ten years. Staying in the same place, overlooking the harbour, has provided me with many hours of innocent fun using my trusty Yaesu FT-817.

Well, not so trusty Yaesu FT-817. I reported before that it was threatening to die on me. It was a bit of a rant so best ignored really, but it is here if you feel the need to read it. No, don't bother.

It didn't just peg out, it lingered for ages, working in some ways and not in other ways, before I finally give up on it. I did summon help to try to resuscitate it, only to be told that it seemed to have had a transient spike in the processor, possibly a lightning strike, and it is was not worth fixing.

I had hoped to sell the remains for £1.00 to one of those people on eBay who scrap old rigs and sell the knobs. Before that happened someone contacted me and offered me double that amount so I sold it on the basis that it was scrap value only. It did receive on HF with some persuasion so he planned to use it as a portable QRM chaser.

This released me to sell all the accessories on eBay. They all worked fine, so I have since sold an SSB filter, a TCXO, a speech processor, a Kranker knob, a microphone, a strap, an LDG ATU, a 4m transverter, a Wonderloop antenna and a battery charger. All this netted a lot more than the still impressive £2.00 I was able to trouser for the rig. The guy who got the rig also got the rubber duck antenna and the battery. Despite this clearout I still have the instruction manual, the cardboard box and my whip antennas. As you can see, I had invested a lot in those FT-817 accessories over the years.

I also have various CAT and data boxes for Yaesu radios which I should have tested before I let the 817 go. Now I will need to test them using a home-brewed test rig. As far as I know they all work but I need to be sure. D'oh. I should have thought of that earlier.

While I was at it, I used my eBaying time to sell off various other things. After much soul searching I sold my excellent 2m transverter. Sure, I think it was better than my IC-9700 for moon bounce, but only a fraction better. Also gone is the KW-style Decca dummy load I bought more than 40 years ago, and a Western power meter from the same era. I sold an MFJ ATU as well.

I bought the FT-817 as a transverter driver. It worked fine for that task. Unexpectedly I found I quite liked using it on holiday. One time I took it to Greece to see what I could hear, and I worked into Austria on 6m. After that I was hooked and I took it to about 10DXCCs to operate from apartments and hotel rooms. It collected various dents, dings and scratches along the way. But it has gone now.

Do I need to replace it? Not for anything other than the portable operations. The new IC-705 looks excellent but it is very expensive. There are others for HF only, but having 6m was a real bonus. I have kept my small portable power supply and my whip antennas just in case. However if I do decide to replace the FT-817 it will probably be as part of a swap with an IC-7100. I just do not need another rig and the IC-7100 would have to go to make room for a QRP portable radio.

I certainly will not be buying an FT-818.

The ALT-512 looks interesting and it got a good review in Practical Wireless RadCom recently. You can find it here Having 4m and 6M is a real plus when portable. The price is not bad considering how much extra cost the Icom 705 would be to add 2m and 70cms, but of course the Icom has a built in li-ion battery, etc.

EDIT - Sorry, the review of the "Aerial-51 ALT-512" was in the March 2020 edition of Rad Com. Apologies for that mistake, but I was away and without my archive. Thanks to John AE5X for pointing out my error.
Street in Funchal, Madeira (yes, that is somebody on a ladder lopping the tree in the distance).

Since arriving in Madeira things have been gradually shutting down thanks to the spread of corona virus. At first, as on previous visits, we enjoyed watching the arrival of cruise ships in the harbour. Had I had room for it in my bag, I would have brought my Wouxun FM hand portable to listen to the marine traffic. As the days went on Madeira refused to allow any more cruise ships to dock. One, the Marella Celebration, arrived here after a 5 day trip from Anguilla, did three laps of the bay and left again. When they sailed from the Caribbean there was no sign that they would be refused permission to dock at Funchal. The Marine Traffic website maps, usually full of vessels heading for here, are empty.

It was the same for us. When we set out, everything seemed fine - by the end of a week the whole place was shutting down and we were offered a place on the last plane back. If we had known what was over the horizon we would never have set off.

Right now I am thinking of the many workers in the local economy who will be deprived of their livelihood. Also, the staff of Jet 2 who are, we hope, coming here to pick us up and take us home. It has been a trying time for the airline industry recently, with companies going bust and now this health disaster to force more woe onto the staff.

Fighting coronavirus is a personal duty in my opinion. We are all involved and we must do our best. Along the way we will lose some good people, but eventually the world will pick itself up. A different world will emerge, no doubt. Wiser? I wonder.
View from Madeira balcony (before the harbour emptied)
On previous trips I have sat on this balcony with my FT-817 and worked the world. Now I am looking at an empty harbour and wondering if I will ever operate from overseas again now that the FT-817 is no more. Perhaps I will let this aspect of the hobby rest for a while.

As Mrs Overall of Acorn Antiques, played by Julie Walters, might have said "Maybe your FT-817 packing up is God's way of telling you to 'Stay at Home for a while, Jim'"

73 and keep washing your hands.

P.S. We are back in GM tonight. That scary runway at Funchal ending in a steep fall to the sea, which puts Madeira in my top three hairy airports to use, worked well enough for us to return. Phew.

Saturday, 7 March 2020

DH8BQA has given me an idea for some future date ...

Actually, DH8BQA has given me several ideas, but let us deal with this one.

It seems to me that sometimes I need a prompt. Like an actor who has forgotten his lines, I need a gentle reminder of what the next thing is supposed to be, a reminder of the plot too maybe. Sure, I know my lines, I have learned my lines over the years, but sometimes I need a bit of a push. Olli has given me a push, but it might take me some time to get around to it. Sometimes I just think about an idea for long periods.

You see, all the time I am dreaming about lots of things which will get done eventually. I am busy having ideas.

I do not really have a photo to represent an idea so here is an unsharp picture of me with hair a long time ago. The Ford Escort 1300E (minus the driving lights which had been stolen) had an on-screen antenna which seems invisible in the photo. It radiated badly anyway. You should have seen that car when I had a bottom loaded whip for 20m on the back bumper and an FT-101 on the passenger seat.
GI8JWG at Kingsbog Junction around 1976.

I have been thinking for some time about meteor scatter on 28MHz, the 10 metre band. This should be a good band for meteor scatter as the reflections from the trails would be longer, possibly leading to short spells of ionisation which looks like "normal" Sporadic E. This sometimes happens on 50MHz (6m) but should be more common on 10m.

What a blog might do is provide me with my prompt. I don't have to share every interest with whoever wrote the blog. Olli has written an article about a contest which coincided with a meteor shower. I don't do contests but we share the interest in the meteor shower and the 10m band. Not only that, but I thought it was a well written posting with all the right information and I think it was pitched at the right level for me, a beginner in 10m meteor scatter.

You can find it here :

There is no convenient shower just now. What I have is an idea about something to try - 10m meteor scatter. It is like getting a piece of kit which does not work, and leaving it in a corner of the shack thinking "I am not sure what I can do with this, but I will sort it eventually". And then, magically, the idea of what you might do is far more interesting that actually using it once you have fixed it.

A bought a humble clock a couple of years ago. It is simple travel clock, bought in a Nordic bargain store in a shopping centre in Edinburgh. Now, why there might be a Nordic bargain store in such a place I had no idea, but the clock was £1.00, so why not? Well, it didn't work properly, that is why not.

Sure it worked after a fashion, with a very loud tick. But every day or so it lost time. Random amounts of time lost, at random intervals, or so it seemed. So I took the battery out and it became one of those things to be fixed.

Let us face it, I cannot give up on an idea. For several years that clock has been in my thoughts. For £1.00 I might as well throw it away. It would cost £41.00 for an "anytime" return in the train from Berwick upon Tweed to Edinburgh so I am not taking it back. Sure, for an old codger like me the bus is free, but that takes four hours to get to Edinburgh and back in the bus.

What kept me going is influenced, no doubt, that I can probably fix it for free and get a pay-off by feeling pleased with myself.

So obviously I kept this clock for years, every so often tinkering with it. At one stage I had a theory that it was sticking gears in the alarm mechanism which was stopping it every time it came up to alarm time. It wasn't. Other equally complex ideas came and went.

Eventually last week it dawned on me to take off the "glass", remove the second hand, put it together again and WHEY-HEY, it works. It must have been jamming against the minute hand at certain points in its arc.

Let us not ask why this had not dawned on me ages ago. If I already knew the answer I would not have had all those interesting ideas along the way.

Who needs a second hand on a travel clock?
The clock with it's former second hand.

As George Benson once sang "Never Give Up On A Good Thing", though I doubt if he meant cheap clocks. I went to a George Benson concert one time and while I think he is a wonderful guitarist, singing is not his forte. He didn't give up on a good thing though, and had a successful vocal recording career. Strange he couldn't do it live. I wonder why.

Now, where was I?

Ah yes, I get these ideas and I just cannot give them up. It might take a very long time to come to fruition, but when I do get round to them I usually crack them in the end. Like the clock. And that is where I am with 10m meteor scatter. Sure I thought about it before. Then Olli's blog prompted me. So now I am thinking again, "I should try that sometime".

When I open up an old computer to try to fix it, I don't know where things are going to go. Fault finding is a wonderful thing, you never know where you will end up. I enjoy just going at risk and trying. My neighbours turn up on the door step and off I go into the unknown with their ancient printers and weird Apple computers. I know nothing about Apple, but I still get there in the end. I am an old bodger.

And so it was with the clock too. Just kick it around until you think of something. The journey is better than the final destination. Curiosity, a desire for experimentation, and an unrealistic impression of my own ability, drive me on to think about a solution.

I don't know what 10m meteor scatter might be like. But like moonbounce or 23cms, let us just go and see where it takes us.

Perhaps I don't do Amateur Radio. Maybe I do one hundred things related to "how things work". I almost prefer having the thoughts, and making the plans about how to solve the task, to actually doing the radio. Sure I do the radio too, but then I am off on some plan to do something else. I do it eventually, but first I must think about it for a year or two.

Thanks Olli.

Now, can I fix the noisy tick on that clock?



Friday, 28 February 2020

Lots more Es in February, or just FT8 keeping us active?

50MHz Sporadic E activity over 12 hours on PSK Reporter 26 February 2020
The accepted wisdom is that Sporadic E is both unpredictable, and predictable.

The unpredictable aspect is that you cannot say if it will occur on any particular day, in any particular direction, or at any time of the day.

The predictable part is that it happens during the Summer and around Christmas. As to what "Summer" means, well that varies with band and latitude. Perhaps April to October in 10m, May to September on 6m, late May to late August on 4m and 3 days around the end of June on 2m. I know nothing about 222Mhz, and 432Mhz has the odd, very rare, event.

You just don't know which days, but you do know generally when to look.

We have discussed the Christmas Es season, or Winter Es as I call it, here before. December and January seem to be the best times, but we don't know when and really only 10m and 6m benefit with rare events on 4m.

Except, the predictable is becoming more unreliable in the sense that we are now finding more event "out of season". And even the unpredictable is becoming more predictable, with more events on more days during the season.

I am no expert but I think that data modes and FT8 are partly responsible for that.

There are many in the amateur world who will go into the technicalities of decibels and sensitivity for an answer to this. I am sceptical about that approach when it comes to unpredictable events. These same people think that using a 30 second meteor scatter program is better than using a 15 second one. In this certainty of theirs they are wrong, but let us leave that thorny topic for a later posting. Amateurs often choose to take the wrong path, and that is a matter for them. I find the 15 second logic easy to grasp, but then I am prefect in every way.

Returning to my thesis, I think that getting all the amateurs in the world onto one frequency, which is more or less what FT8 does, vastly improves the chance of them hearing each other. In fact, I am pretty sure that it will result in far more contacts and receptions being logged than most circuit improvement we could make to our equipment. And, dare I say, more significant than more sensitive data protocols.

The process started with RTTY and its working frequencies. Whereas SSB stations spread out and tend to miss each other, RTTY brought them nearer and allowed reception without tuning or actually paying attention all the time. This got a lot better with PSK, which showed all the stations together on one waterfall. It suddenly got a lot easier to find everyone. As an early RTTY stalwart, PSK so dramatically out performed RTTY that I never went back. I often say how dorky I find RTTY now, and how wasteful it is of resources. However, RTTY opened the door for lots of us.

From PSK I found FSK441 and JT65 great ways to work stations but once again they tended to spread out across the band. I realised what was going on when I understood the distinction between  slow modes and fast modes. WSPR is a desperately slow mode, with 2 minute transmit periods and glacially slow bit rates. But the results were stupendous. I could, and did, work so far on very low power that it would have been the equivalent of 2,000,000 km per watt. But we always knew that the station at the other end would be on the same frequency. Not only did the efficiency of the data mode play its part, but so did having hundreds of others listening for each other, all on the same frequency.

The next step from JT65 was JT9, a simply splendid narrower mode where everybody could share the waterfall. And so eventually to FT8, where the whole world can listen together and you can reasonably expect to find everybody else using the mode. Unlike the fast modes (like MSK144 and fast versions of JT9), you are presented with a waterfall of stations, and they can operate on some sort of shared basis on a single SSB-filter wide part of the spectrum.

FT8 is a slow mode. It is not terrifically efficient. You could make it more efficient by slowing its data rate down some more which would make it more sensitive, but then you are heading towards WSPR territory. FT8 is a compromise which allows us QSOs rather than just beacon operation like WSPR, at the cost of some sensitivity. But never mind the sensitivity, you can work more people because they are all there waiting for you.

Is amateur radio there for chatting about pig farming techniques (yes, I listened to that QSO), or is it here for us to find out something new? Putting everybody on a moderately efficient mode which records reception and does not need to be attended to every moment, all on the same frequency, is likely to maximise the chances of reception. Whatever the sensitivity, it raises the probability of reception taking place, and thus QSOs.

So it is that I think I am finding more Sporadic E in February. Lots more. I cannot remember the figures, but I think that FT8 is less sensitive than JT9. But that does not matter much, as far more stations use FT8, so there seems to be more Es. Ultimate sensitivity does not matter so much for Es, where the signals can be quite strong. WSPR might be more sensitive, but the signals are not steady enough to last 2 minutes. Fast modes might be even better at handling the QSB, but 15 seconds is a good test - it is rather like having an SSB QSO. Fast modes would benefit from scatter enhancement, but with FT8 we can be pretty sure we are witnessing Sporadic E (erm, does this help explain why there are so many modes???)
50MHz sporadic E activity on PSK Reporter over 15 minutes during 28 February 2020 - pleased to reach OY.
OK, I know February has 29 days this year. However, I was away in Grantown on Spey for five of those days, and anyway it did not occur to me that this was happening for the first half of February. My effective study period covered a maximum of 23 days out of a possible 28 (I am not waiting for day 29). During that time I worked DX stations on Sporadic E on 50MHz on 8 days out of a possible 23.

8 days Sporadic E out of 23 in February? That sounds more like April. I would have expected February to produce one or two Es days. I had to check - had this ever happened here in February before?

Now, there are a few issues to resolve before checking the logs. Firstly some days I only worked one station (that happens in April and September too). I have excluded any stations within tropo range though they appear on the maps.

Quite often I worked SM5EPO (in fact on five different days), but it was Per-O who was around. Often the path opened to Sweden, but recently also to the Faeroe Islands where OY1OF heard me repeatedly on several days, but no QSO resulted. I worked mostly into the normal Es distance destinations - France, Germany, Italy, Norway, etc.

I have left out of my figures any one way reports, though there have been lots of them too. I have also left out partial QSOs. These get to exchange of reports but not RRR, so they get a ? in my log and are not counted. Where the callsigns are exchanged but not the reports I do not log them at all.  So I am sure that QSOs on 8 days is a fair statement - there are no partials in that figure. There has been more activity, sometimes just a couple of received messages or a partial QSO, on about 8 more days, but I have ignored them for the figures.

As for the total number of QSOs, well the Es opening on 11 February skews the results. It is not the number of contacts which is the key measure for me, but the number of days it occurs. Still, if you want to see activity on 6m from 1 to 28 February here it is :-
FT8 50MHz contacts at GM4FVM 1 to 28 February 2020
Ploughing through the logs was a tedious business.

The comparable figure for February 2019 is zero. NIL Sporadic E contacts in February 2019. I have not been able to drag up my FT8 listening  log but I bet I was listening on many days in 2019.

Figures for other years:-
2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, All NIL
2014 - 1 QSO (SM5EPO of course)
2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 All NIL.

I was alive and working during all those February dates, and I did work people on meteor scatter or tropo. Apart from that one day in 2014, I never noticed any Es activity. I would, of course, as anybody else on tropo or meteor scatter would, hear any of those stations via Es and reply using whatever mode we were on. There were none in February except one QSO on one day.

So, if it is true (and it might not be true), why is there suddenly Sporadic E propagation now? I doubt it. I think there are more stations listening on FT8 and ready to work someone. In other words, I just noticed it, and so did enough other people to work me.

Sure, there may be more unpredictable Es this month of this year. There was the opening on 11 February 2020, which was associated with increased geomagnetic activity. Likewise, during the short openings on 27 and 28 February 2020 I noticed that the K number as measured at the GM4PMK observatory (see link in sidebar). I certainly believe that on days when Es is not likely to happen, a spike in geomagnetic activity can push it into action. But all these issues arise every year, perhaps even more often at better stages in the sunspot cycle.

I will not bother to comment on the effect of Jet Streams as it appears to be NIL.

Is this Es and not some other means of propagation? It is certainly patchy, there is a lot of one-way propagation and quick QSB. I can see "pings" of signal which looks a bit like meteor scatter but that cannot explain it as there are no major showers now, and when it does get stronger it lacks the characteristic meteor patterns.

Is FT8 just better than you think it is Jim? Maybe, but I was using it last year too.

For sure, you do get occasional reception over great distances on FT8. Those are random events and almost always just for one reception (I suspect they are caused by either cosmic ray ionisation or random large meteors). This year's events were all long enough to secure a QSO. Looks like Es to me - and everybody else who reports it as such.

So there you are. I might be wrong.  I often am wrong, which you may have noticed.

I think this may simply be a measure of FT8 activity on 6m as much as increased Es.

I cannot lose here. If Es really is getting more common so much the better. Bring it on. If it is not getting more common, thanks to Joe Taylor and FT8.

Actually, thanks to Joe Taylor for FT8 anyway. Nice one Joe.




Wednesday, 12 February 2020

Sporadic E thanks to a kind sun.

Sporadic E on 11 February, who could have predicted that ???
Before I start can I mention that the BBC's excellent "In Our Time" programme featured a talk on Solar Wind recently? The general idea of the programme is that a generalist egg-head who knows little about the specific topic (always played by Melvin Bragg) surrounds himself with three of the best academic experts on the subject, and they all try to tease out the detail for the audience in about 45 minutes. There is also a short round up at the end after the programme itself is finished..

You can find the podcast here:-

Whilst it is not about radio propagation there is a lot of information in it. The science strand of these programmes can be quite interesting, especially for downloading to a phone and keeping for waiting for trains etc.

You can also find it on the BBC Sounds app.

As many of you will know, I am very sceptical about the claims that we can predict Sporadic E using Jet Stream data. The Jet Stream, high speed winds high in the atmosphere may, I concede, play some part in the Sporadic E story. As for them being predictive - I just do not believe it. What evidence I have from here suggests that the predictions are just plain wrong.

For the past few weeks, the RSGB VHF predictions service (and the HF one too) have been predicting the likely path of Sporadic E openings using the Jet Stream predictions and they have been spectacularly inaccurate. No, wrong was the correct word for this. They just did not happen. This week they once again said that there would be lots of Jet Stream energy available, and I thought "so what?". This is interesting, but it does not help me with what day to be ready, where to point my antenna. Anyway, for the past few weeks, nothing has happened anyway.

Much more interesting for me was Solarham's prediction of disturbed geomagnetic conditions on 11 February.
3 day K-index prediction from NOAA as shown on Solarham
As usual, click to enlarge images if necessary.

Solarham (link on side bar) had been using the NOAA K-index predications to issue this warning a couple of days in advance, which meant I was ready.

A K number of 4 might suggest a weak aurora, but it was the prolonged spell of level of 3 during the day of the 11th which interested me.

It is time perhaps for me to return to stating my own theory about unusual Es events. Rather than pinning any credence on the Jet Stream I find that enhanced geomagnetic activity seems to fit in with most out of season Es events. I have a general vague term for this "enhanced geomagnetic activity short of an aurora" to describe when the K level rises. This gets me on aurora watch, but if the level never triggers a full aurora and I find myself listening to Sporadic E instead.

I have been banging on about this for years - here in 2017 ...

Thus the 11 February event looked like just the thing.

I had to go out twice during the day and so missed a lot of contacts. I also got so involved in 6m and even 4m activity that I missed a lot of QSOs on 10m, but here are the day's contacts again with labels this time:-
All contacts (28 to 70MHz) at GM4FVM on 11 February 2020

Over an operating period of 5 hours and 38 minutes I had 53 QSOs (all on FT8) into 12 DXCCs accounting for 38 squares. ODX was UW5ZO in square KO30, a distance of 1984km.

This is pretty much what I had expected. On many days of high Jet Stream energy, I look for Es and find nothing. When there is a day of enhanced geomagnetic activity I looks for Es and find a shed load. I am not saying that the Jet Stream has nothing to do with it, I am saying that Jet Stream predictions are no use in predicting what might happen, whereas solar activity often is.

Dealing with the bands, as usual with Es, action tends to start here on 10m and work upwards:-
10m (28MHz) contacts at GM4FVM on 11 February 2020
Early in the morning I was finding that the openings on 6m were very short and moving around geographically, so many failed to complete. I could get callsigns and reports, but not RRR so they failed in terms of duration being less than a minute long before moving somewhere else. On 10m they were long enough to complete. Later on in the day, when 6m and 4m became more stable I mostly sat and watched 10m as the activity rolled along. I could have made twice the number of contacts on 10m that I actually attempted, if my attention was not diverted elsewhere. It was on 10m that I worked my ODX for the day, to UW5ZO. This was early on - Es is best when the ionisation is weakest.

I devoted more attention to 6m, hoping to test out my recently installed antenna. Whilst signals were strong at times, up to +17dB, they tended to fade quickly, so more gain might extend the operating period long enough to complete the contact. So far so good. ODX was 9A2DI in JN95 (as it often is) at 1870km. I had 32 QSOs on 6m in just under 4 hours,  working 11 DXCC and 25 squares.
6m (50MHz) contacts at GM4FVM on 11 Feburary 2020
32 QSOs producing 25 squares shows how variable this opening was. Most of the time there were only two or three stations heard at once. As it moved around without much of a pattern, the stations changed location. Some of the French stations were there for a long time, as were some of the Balkan stations, whereas the Germans and Czechs stayed only briefly.

Only rarely do these events stray onto 4m. I think this is partly due to the low activity on that band, but also the trend for small pockets of territory to be covered as you get higher in frequency (which gets much more pronounced on 2m). Both these factors mean that your chances of picking out an active amateur are lower. However, I still did have some success:-
4m (70MHz) contacts at GM4FVM on 11 February 2020
Of course there are a lot fewer stations active on 70MHz. I was heard in Spain, which surprised me. I was pleased with that performance from the new antenna. 3 QSOs on 3 DXCC and 3 squares, of course. ODX was HA7WFN in JN97 at 1733km. Just to prove me wrong, he stayed on my waterfall for half an hour. Maybe the variation is not so much in which area is covered, but how wide the area of coverage. Perhaps as the area of ionisation varies this changes the stations we hear. So a station at the centre would stay on the propagation zone for longer than one at the edge. I have no firm evidence for this, I just wonder.

During Summer Es, the common type, sometimes you can just about see the effect of the Sun moving in relation to any point on the Earth (well, the Earth rotating really). The Es tends to move, as you might expect, East to West as the Sun does. People talk about "Es clouds drifting", but there are no Es clouds in that sense, and whatever you call them they don't drift anyway. The very way Es clouds work is that they are trapped layers of ionised particles, so by any definition they do not move much. During this event there was not much sign of any pattern. Probably the ionisation was popping up wherever the geomagnetic effect was strongest.

This was a good Es opening worthy of a Summer's day, when you might have expected it. That it happened in mid-February is interesting. It happened during a period of raised, but not very high, geomagnetic activity. Higher geomagnetic activity might have triggered an aurora and this posting would be different. Lower geomagnetic activity, well, that would just be another day when the weathermen would be spouting about Jet Streams, and nothing would have happened at all.

That is my theory, and I only have my blog to put it forward. Others, with the might of a national society and weekly prediction broadcast on amateur radio frequencies can put theirs forward in their way. Quite possibly we are both wrong. There could be 101 reasons why this event happened, but I know I could be wrong, I state it is just a theory, whereas others claim to have the answer.

Science moves on by rejecting old theories. It is bad science if you only look at events when they happen and ignore what is going on when they don't happen. It is bad science when you only look at what happens near you and not at what happens elsewhere. And it is bad science when you take your own speciality, however good you may be at it, and apply it's solutions to problems which have many and varied causes.

And finally...

As the Jet Stream theory enthusiasts are talking about a weather phenomenon in the North Atlantic, you would not expect to see Es activity enhanced in different parts of the world by such events.
Activity on 6m on 11 February 2020 on PSK reporter

It seems this event produced effects in the other parts of the world which use 6m, even during the night when VHF activity is usually very low. Is the Jet Stream around our UK shores responsible for all this?



Monday, 27 January 2020

4m/6m dual band antenna

Well, that great television detective Vera Stanhope arrived in Burnmouth and my antennas were not visible in the background.

Burnmouth harbour had become a salmon fishery base, and a body was found floating in the tide. With murder brought so near to GM4FVM, I have been wondering about my security. I am a bit more visible than I was thanks to a new antenna for 4m and 6m. Well, actually it is the same size as my previous antenna up there, though it has more elements on a single boom.

I was not a big fan of dual band antennas until Antennas and Amplifiers started making carefully designed yagis with separate feeds. This was based on my experience with my Vine 4m/6m yagi, which had 4 and 3 elements respectively and a single feed. I just did not like a single feed.

I had a system whereby during the summer I would have separate antennas, and during the winter when the winds tend to be higher I put up the old Vine again. Even last year when the 6m antenna was just a simple 1/2 wave vertical I stuck to this system. If I needed any proof of the wind force the 1/2 wave bent when I left it up over the winter. An earlier 4m vertical there did the same thing and ended up crooked.
The old Vine (left with Diamond vertical), and the bent 6m half wave (right)
So I thought a compromise was needed. Could I get an antenna on a single boom which did not require a single feed, but which was also able to survive the gales? Ideally this would have similar gain figures to the two separate 5 element beams for 4m and 6m I use during the summer. Maybe not all of this would be perfect but it would be better than what I do now.

This question was then put to Goran, YU1CF, at Antennas and Amplifiers and he went away and poured over his beam modelling software. Actually, he spent ages on it. My specification was for a 3 metre boom maximum boom length and with any benefit of the doubt to be given to the 4m band. Eventually he came up with a new design called PA5070-9-3-2CB. This has 4 elements on 6m and 5 on 4m, and the gain figures are much the same as each of my previous single band 5 element antennas.

Goran has managed to get it all into the same space as my previous 6m yagi - i.e. 3m x 3m. This is good news for the neighbours who will have to look at it. I definitely did not want to put up anything that was bigger than before. Of course it does have 9 elements, but that is instead of 10 elements on two 5 element beams. The biggest gain for the neighbours is that there is only one of these antennas instead of two. So, all round skyline effect is smaller. The effective length of the 4m beam is 2.2m and the 6m one is 2.8m. The elements are interlaced together lengthwise on opposite sides of the boom, just like the 2m/70cms one.

This arrangement leaves the other mast clear of 4m and 6m, so it just has two antennas, the 2m.70cms dual band and the 23cm yagi. There is a reduction in wind pressure all round. Also reduced is the overall antenna count as the 6m vertical has been taken down before it fell down and the 2m/70cms vertical has gone there instead. Well, I call it a 2m/70cms vertical, but it is really only a marine band antenna due to the death of FM activity round here.

Right so, let's see it.
Antennas and Amplifiers dual band beam, "2m/70cms" vertical on right
It is no larger in any dimension than the 6m single band antenna, so I am very pleased with that. We shall have to see how it performs. Now I have a 6m beam all year round, or at least I hope so. Goran's meticulous construction looks likely to be long lived.

My dislike of single feeds is silly. After all, all the elements in a yagi are parasitic except for the driven element. Despite that, and for no good reason, I do not like the sleeve arrangement.

So we will see.




Monday, 20 January 2020

Japan on 2 metres, in easy steps

 Q. What does a man who likes following his summer sports (cycling, cricket), watch during the Winter?
A. Ski Sunday, of course.
All will be revealed ....
Here is a photo of last night's sunset, which has little particular significance to this tale, apart from signalling high barometric pressure and possible tropospheric lift conditions
Sunset at GM4FVM on 19 January 2020.
Last Saturday (11th January) was interesting. Not that I set out to work Japan on 2 metres. It all happened in nine small steps.

Step 1 - The erratic linear amplifier

My 70cms TE Systems 4452G has never quite lived up to the performance of my other two TE Systems amps. Theoretically capable of 175 watts it has never really delivered more than 130, though those 130 have done very well for me. I set it up and left it on the "do something about this later" list, thinking it needed tuned like it's 6m sister.
TE Systems linear at GM4FVM, plus sequencer, fans, fan controller and rat's nest of wires
Over the past few days it had become erratic, cutting out. So something had to be done now. Funny how things get put in the "do something about this later" list and stay there until they appear in the "do something about it now" list becase they have failed entirely. So the "do something about this later" list is really a "do nothing and wait" list.

Wiggling various cables revealed an erratic connection in an "Anderson Powerpole" plug and socket in the lead. Being an inhabitant of the European side of the Atlantic, Anderson Powerpoles came as a surprise to me. I had dabbled in electronics for over 50 years and never seen one before this linear arrived. Of course I had heard of them, and I had read of the idea that they were the perfect solution to every need and they never fail. Try as I might I could not save these ones, and they were consigned to the bin.
Cut-off power poles and their boot.
I cut off the shrunk-on boot and I could not find a way to tighten the crimp on the plugs, so I had to cut them off. Then it dawned on me that the boot had been hot. Was the linear running low output due to power starvation?
Patience ...

Step 2 - Assuring the 70cms linear full power

As a bit of background I should say that this 70cms linear was bought from eBay second hand. It did seem rather cheap, and looking back in eBay records I discovered that the previous owner had bought it a few weeks earlier. This did not put me off, but it did make me wonder.

It had arrived with a few non-standard alterations. One was that it had an extended DC power lead, linked to the supplied power lead by the offending Anderson Powerpoles. The linear had Anderson Powerpoles fitted too and these were much heavier than the ones at the joint. I now noticed that the extension cable was a bit thinner than the original. So did the lighter extension cable and lower rated connectors combine to reduce the voltage, limit the current, and hence the power, to the linear?

Once I connected the shorter original power cable direct to the PSU I got 150W output. Not a bad improvement. So I got out the multimeter and checked the output of the PSU on its "13.8V" fixed setting. Hmmm, 12 volts. Turning it to adjustable voltage and resetting - 13.8V produced 180W output! Tah dah!

Step 3 - Testing the linear at full power

The TE Systems has four fans on top added by me. I am paranoid you know. Two run during PTT, and two on a temperature controlled switch, allowing me to monitor the temperature. This trends up to about 32C before stabilising. Would it get too hot on 180W and 13.8V, compared to 130W and 12V? Quick test, no sign of that, in fact it seems cooler on 13.8V (the fans run from a different supply so they were not turning faster).

As is so often the case I could find nobody on 70cms to test with. However, I noticed from PSK reporter that Colin GM0HBK was receiving DL7APV on moonbounce. Maybe conditions to the moon would be good and I could get a real test of the amplifier there.

Up on moonbounce DL7APV was POUNDING in. I did not wish to bother him as he was working a station in China and I worked him before ...

Step 4 - Turn 2m to moonbounce while I am busy on 70cms.

No point being in the shack and not having both parts of the dual band antenna working. If I am pointing at the moon I usually turn both bands on and listen. Why not? You never know. While I am on 432, I tend to set the 2m radio to 144.120. Theoretically, 120 is a sort of "calling frequency" but it is little used for that.

Step 5 - If I hear somebody on 2m, I should work them.

Whilst fiddling around between three stations on 70cms who were supposed to be operating (though I could only hear APV) I noticed that S51ZO was really strong on 144.120. I checked and I had never worked him, so why not give that a try?

Really strong in this context means -20dB, and I was something similar with him. I only have 7 elements and no elevation, so any contact is a good one. Mind you, the story goes that if you can get to the moon and back you can work anywhere in the world, as the distance is much the same. That never works for me, as on 2m I had only worked Europe. I did wonder a bit, because I have worked USA on 70cms EME.

Step 6 - Let stations know you will QSL.

It is customary to exchange confirmation of moonbounce contacts on the WSJT EME website
Well, I do anyway, and it seems to be expected. Joze, S51ZO was there and keen to confirm that I would QSL direct. I would, after all he was a new contact for me.
Nearly there

Step 7 - If you post, you will be pounced on

I mean this in the nicest possible way - if you let people know you are on EME, they will ask you for skeds. And this time Juu, JH0BBE asked me to try to work him on 144.131.

Now I have had Juu ask me for a sked before and it did not work. Me? Work Asia on 2m?

Being a polite and civilised person, and a model radio amateur (as you all know), I would not refuse his request. Of course I will try,

Step 8 - If it can happen, someday it will.

On the face of it, given the lower power most Japanese stations run, there should be a chance of me working them on EME. When I see a US station I have a pretty good idea that they will be running 1000 or 1500W, and they need to be very strong for me to try my 300-ish watts. That is running my amplifier absolutely flat out, something I rarely do. But with Juu running 500W there was a chance.

Then he posted that he was hearing me. Eh? So I persisted. And then I decoded his call. Could this be happening? I sat there and watched, yes watched, the tell-tale double lines of the shorthand message RRR as it trailed down my waterfall. No need to decode it, I saw and heard it. Wow!
2m EME at GM4FVM 11 January 2020.
Step 9 - the QSL card

Juu asked for a direct card, which was off at the Post Office the next working day. And Juu's card arrived with me in just over a week. Three cards in fact.

It might be my first JA in EME, in fact my first station outside Europe on 2m EME, but it is first contact number 910 for him. He has 2m DXCC, and he has helped me to continent number 3.

My report from him was -26dB, effectively RST 0. He could not hear me, but the software could decode me. For me he was officially  -27dB, but I both saw and heard his RRR, so that must be RST 551. My noise level is very low.

I never set out to do that. I set out that day to fix the dodgy connection on the 70cms linear. I ended up working Japan on 2m.

There is a program on UK TV called "24 Hours in Police Custody". In it, real-life ne'er do wells, rapscallions and perps get questioned by the police while we all look on agog at the shocking nature of their crimes. The thing is --- it is real. They often say "I never meant it to happen. It started simple and then it all changed and got complicated. I was swept along on the tide of events.". Well, that is what happened to me.

The next day, peering again at 2m moon bounce, I saw this:-

200112_183900   144.120 Rx JT65   -25  2.5 1579 CQ S51ZO JN86                         f
200112_184000   144.120 Rx JT65   -27  2.7 1499 S51ZO ZL1HD RF82                      f
200112_184100   144.120 Rx JT65   -21  2.5 1580 ZL1HD S51ZO JN86 OOO                  f
200112_184200   144.120 Rx JT65   -21 -0.5 1501 RO
200112_184300   144.120 Rx JT65   -22  3.3 1582 RRR
200112_184400   144.120 Rx JT65   -22  3.6 1501 73
200112_184500   144.120 Rx JT65   -21  4.7 1583 73

That was both sides of an entire QSO between S71ZO and ZL1HD.

I have never heard a ZL before during my entire amateur radio career. And now I hear one via 2m moonbounce. What a square RF82 would be for me.

Sadly, I had left the rig running and it recorded that event. I could not try a QSO with ZL because I was not in the shack. I had gone to watch .... Ski Sunday.