Wednesday, 6 June 2018

A busy time on VHF plus ClubLog and Western Sahara on 4m

The period 3 to 6 June 2018 will go down as one of my busiest. Not quite THE busiest (the same period in 2016 must have been that) but one of the most, and very productive too.

Here is a snapshot of 10m WSPR, showing the areas reached in a 24 hour period. It all looks much as you might expect one of my HF charts to look like. In fact, I looked in the log and for the entire 24 hour period (except between 04:40 and 04:50) there was some exchange going on for GM4FVM on 10m WSPR - and it went on like that for 3 days (3,4 and 5 June 2018) with the rig on constant duty (as usual click to enlarge the images if necessary) ...
WSPRnet map for 10m WSPR at GM4FVM 24 hours to 10:30 on 5 June 2018.
Rather more unusual is this image for the same 3 day period ...
VHF contacts logged at GM4FVM 3 to 5 June 2018
You see, the unusual thing is that second chart is VHF.

I do not have the biggest tower, the longest antenna or the beefiest linear. I never really expected results like that on VHF. Sure, it looks like HF, but it is 2m, 4m and 6m combined over three days (two and half days really).

To show how things normally are I am including details of the previous day too in this table of contacts

2 June   Total 2   2 x 6m
3 June   Total 14   13 x 4m, 1 x 6m
4 June   Total 64   9 x 2m, 27 x 4m, 28 x 6m
5 June   Total 61   25 x 2m, 30 x 4m, 6 x 6m

There are a lot more contacts than usual but then again not SO many. Hidden in the detail is a list of surprising QSOs.

Taking 2m to start with
144MHz stations worked at GM4FVM 3 to 5 June 2018
There had been some Sporadic E on 2m here on 3 June and I saw that GM4ZJI had worked into Spain. It did occur to me to become active then but we wanted to watch a drama on the television about the shooting of Norman Scott's dog. If you live outside the UK this is a political sex scandal dating from the 1970s. Whilst it may seem strange to still be raking over a 40 year old event which is fairly irrelevant today, the British love a political sex scandal. Superb performances by Hugh Grant, Ben Wishaw and Adrian Scarborough. They should make a follow up, which would be difficult as it was a real life story.

Anyway, I should know that 2m Es is so fleeting that you cannot turn the radio on for it. By then you have missed it. So I watched 2m activity the following day while working on FT8. I saw the signs  and I managed to switch to SSB for an opening which lasted between 18:24 and 18:30. I managed two new 2m countries, Bosnia - Herzegovina and Croatia. Most of the rest was FT8 on tropo. One station in Poland, HF9D, I worked in the mistaken belief that he was in Hungary. Ignorance is bliss.

The 2m contact with E72U in Bosnia, at 1914km, fails to beat EU7AA at 2077km, a record that has stood here since 10 June 2011.

Moving on to 4m, again there was a mix of tropo and Es.
70MHz stations worked at GM4FVM 3 to 5 June 2018
There were some nice new squares to work here, especially in Spain. Another new square was provided by a kind Swedish operator on holiday in Greece. Nice to work Canary Islands again on 4m after a gap of 5 years!

On 6m I tried to work some of the smaller European states, reckoning that I was unlikely to cross the Atlantic. I was wrong ...
50MHz stations worked at GM4FVM 3 to 5 June 2018
There were lots of Europeans of course, with new 6m European mini-DXCCs for me such as the Vatican City (HV0), Azores (CU), Aland Islands (OG0) and Ceuta and Melilla (EA9). New squares too (E72U who had given me a new DXCC on 2m, also gave me a new square on 6m six hours later).

Nevertheless it was the four trans-Atlantic contacts which surprised me. The two Florida stations, NC2V and K3XT, plus the one in Dominican Republic HI3T were netted the normal way on 50.313 FT8. Those are great contacts and I would have been happy with that, but ...

There has been a move to separate out inter-continental FT8 traffic and move it to 50.323. There, for example, European stations could all work on the same period (1st) which could leave the reception period uncluttered. You can read more about this idea here. Anyway, after spending a long time watching on 50.323 I could see how rarely I could copy any inter-continental DX. Then suddenly up popped XE2JS and a couple of calls netted me Mexico on 6m. At 8229km that pretty well shatters my previous 6m DX record.
A quick snap of my 6m yagi on 4 June - at 23:00 local time! 4m vertical in foreground

Moving inter-continental FT8 to a specific frequency is fraught with problems. Many amateurs do not seem to look for any guidance (after all, they do not read the WSJT-X notes either). Others don't care. Some who do know tried to act as policemen, but then the rules are not enforceable. It was like a bear pit, but I worked Mexico.

As Father Fintan Stack said in an edition of Father Ted "I've had my fun and that's all that matters".

No, seriously, I could never have worked Mexico on the normal FT8 frequency. Whether users know that places East of Istanbul are not in Europe, or that Greenland counts as North America or all the other ripples in our delightful DXCC landscape is doubtful. It was a pity to see people just ignoring the idea that 50.323 is meant for traffic between continents. Will it work long term? Having already benefited, I would like to think so.

So that was a busy three days. What did I do that was special? Not much. As always it is the conditions which make the fun, not mere radios or the works of man. In every way it was astounding to watch, and we are still a couple of weeks short of peak Es at the Solstice.
I was very pleased to work S01WS in Western Sahara on 6m FT8 on 4 May. This has been a troubled area and it is great to see amateur radio taking a hold in this inhospitable environment.
You don't see many of these beasts in Berwickshire
I was totally bowled over to work S01WS again, this time on 4m SSB, on 28 May. I had no warning that they were on 4m and there was a scrum of similarly animated G stations. Anyway I was fairly confident that I had got through the pileup but not completely certain. I mentioned this to GM4JJJ who pointed out that I could check on ClubLog. I confess to more ignorance here as I have never used ClubLog. You can find it here. As well as various services for members, it offers a free log check for non-members. This means that you can check if you are in a member's log.

I did the search immediately to find that I was not in S01WS's log for 4m, though I was for the earlier 6m contact. However, the following day there I was for both. You can use ClubLog to order a direct QSL card (for a small fee) and make a donation. I was so pleased with S01WS's efforts that I decided to do both. The QSL arrived through the post within a week.
QSL for contact with S01WS on 28 May
I may well be deluding myself to read into this a rosy future for African VHF amateur radio. But at least it is positive. Having recently worked Algeria on 6m too, I think things are much better than what we have been accustomed to for several years.

Oh yes, at 3369km, S01WS exceeds my previous 4m DX record (3261km to EA8CAW).
Progress since 31 March 2018 (31 March figures in brackets)

Squares 116 (107)   DXCC 26 (24)   Continents 1 (1)   DX excl EME 2077km (2077)

Squares 214 (204)   DXCC 40 (39)   Continents 2 (2)   DX 3369km (3261)

Squares 319 (294)   DXCC 63 (55)   Continents 4 (4)   DX 8229km (6733)

That happened in just over 2 months. If it goes on like this there will be very few left to find.

I must go and lie down.



Monday, 28 May 2018

WSJT-X audio, tx period, timing plus a long 4m QSO

From time to time I get queries about WSJT-X and here are a few that came in recently:-

Why has my audio suddenly failed?

David GM4JJJ provided the solution to this one. I was away in Greece at the time so it had not caught up with me yet. Now that I am back and have installed the recent Windows 10 update my audio streams stopped working too. Thankfully I had David's advice - go to Settings, Privacy and select "Microphone" from the left bar. Turn "allow apps to access microphone" on, and then you might want to turn off all the other apps. WSJT-X is not listed but it is accessible if you turn the overall button "on".

Maybe it is just me. Although I write a blog I do like to keep some things private. I turn off the microphone because there isn't one on this PC anyway. I do it as routine on my laptop and tablet because I try to avoid giving anything to the collectors of "big data". So if this does not affect you then you are not as nutty as I am and you had your microphone turned on in the first place.

What does the selection Tx even/1st mean?

This is not really very clear in WSJT-X. It looks a bit like the choice is either even or first. What it actually means is that the choice is for or against even and first (versus odd and second).  Even and first are two ways of describing the same thing.
WSJT-X showing the period selection at the top
 To many people none of this matters at all. In FT8 clicking on a station calling will set it automatically. However, it is crucial to meteor scatter operators as it shows the direction the operator is seeking contacts. Also, it is common round here for local stations to use second period simply to stop us overloading each other's receivers. We can still reply to somebody by transmitting on first but we usually call CQ on second.

I am not about to go into the background about all this, which has its roots in meteor scatter and EME. Suffice to say that the labelling on WSJT-X is confusing some people. Choosing first (itself an odd number) means selecting the even period, whereas choosing second (obviously an even number) chooses the odd periods. The two terms made some sense when the periods were a minute long, but now that they are sometimes 15 second long it is all getting confusing.

This is one area which MSHV makes perfectly clear with a simple choice between two options....
MSHV showing a clear choice of period.
 Why am I seeing traces but nothing is decoding?

Could be many things, but almost certainly because your timing is wrong.

Data modes depend on accurate timing. The timing regime as supplied as standard with Windows is not accurate enough for this purpose. Most people use Dimension 4 or Meinberg to upgrade their timing to the necessary standard. See the link to Meinberg on the sidebar.

Not that these are totally foolproof. I have had quite a bit of trouble with Meinberg. I discovered it because I was using a different computer for 10m WSPR. The two PCs showed different times, even though both had Meinberg. I added the Meinberg monitor and what I expect to see is this - some yellow time sources found (suitable), one green one (the best one which Meinberg is using) and maybe a red one (not suitable). Then some will be white ("a survivor" but not one chosen) :-
Meinberg Time Server Monitor. One time source (green) is synchronised with 2 in reserve (yellow)
But many times none of the listed sources were synchronising and some were simply marked as survivors, meaning that Meinberg did not look for a replacement. If all six were like that the whole thing was stuck. This showed up as a several second difference between the two computers. I coloured those (otherwise white) sources purple to make them easier for me to see.
All sources unsuitable - this stayed like this for hours.
Another failure is if Meinberg software simply fails to start. I know of no way of testing for this other than by installing and using the monitor. Fortunately this fault often causes the time to default to the last time you turned the computer off, so it shows up fairly easily.

Either way, restarting the computer seems to be the only way to free these situations up as user starting and stopping of the software is turned off in the standard version of Meinberg.

Anyway, in my experience, just because I have installed Meinberg does not make everything certain.
Great QSO on 4m FT8 with Olli, DH8BQA, today (link to DH8BQA's blog on the sidebar). So much for 1 minute QSOs on FT8, this one took 40 minutes.

For the first 30 minutes or so I could not get a good bearing on a station which was showing up as a faint trace. Data modes don't help here, as unlike CW or SSB you cannot catch a bit of a callsign. I knew it was somewhere between 150 and 80 degrees, but that was as close as it got. It was very steady but very weak with occasional meteor pings and blips of Es. Eventually I worked out that it must be Olli. Only then did I occur to me to look and find that he had posted that he was hearing me on the cluster. He must have PSK Reporter logging turned off.

I was determined to complete this one as it was obviously not your normal 5/9+ Es QSO. At the time there was no Es QSO going on on 6m, and nothing on 10m WSPR so it was unlikely to be Es on 4m, or at least not entirely. The presence of a constant, weak, signal at about 1100km range suggests to me some underlying scatter mode, tropo- or iono- scatter. The meteor pings probably just served to spoil the FT8 decoding, but there were also occasional weak Es period superimposed on the weak trace. This weak Es was never long enough to allow a decode, so I had to wait for the weak steady signal to get through.

The QSO was easy enough once I knew exactly where to point the beam. I then mis-posted it as Tropo but I think it was a steady scatter mode, with a bit of assistance from Es and tropo, plus a wee bit of meteor scatter to mess it up.

I like that type of thing. Having spent hours on single meteor scatter QSO in the past, 40 minutes is not much time to spend on an interesting outcome.

I suspect that marginal paths like this are possible a lot of the time.
Finally, it has been a BRILLIANT Giro d'Italia. Quite the best bike race I have followed for 20 years or so. OK, so Dumoulin did not win this time, but the mountain climbing, the break aways, even the sprinting, had me on the edge of the seat every day. Wonderful.



Saturday, 26 May 2018

Back from SV4 and the FTdx101D shows Yaesu are awake at last.

I am back from another trip away - to Skiathos in Greece where I was operating as SV4/G4FVM. As per usual I got eQSL and coverage ready and indeed I exchanged an eQSL with IW4AOT almost immediately after the first QSO ...
Blank eQSL - I took the photo on my phone at Koukounaries
I would like to work square KM19 myself.

I was using the FT-817. It was not meant to be like this as I had planned a listening only trip with the Fun Cube Dongle but other things got in the way of that. Then I suddenly discovered that the cabin baggage weight limit for the flight was only 6Kg, so I had to jettison almost everything I had intended to bring.

Anyway, once I got there HF was impossible to use due to a very high noise level. I could use 10m WSPR and stations could hear me, but I could not hear anything. So I resorted to 6m and did moderately well. 6m WSPR delivered a few but I heard dozens of stations on 6m FT8 (I must add the total up). Anyway, best dx heard was Sweden. I worked five stations, not bad as the 817 could only be persuaded to produce about 2 watts and the antenna was terrible due to other unforeseen problems.

These overseas operations are always tricky for me. They take place during a family holiday so operation is patchy. There are limits to the amount of equipment I can carry, and how much I am willing to invest on gear for a week or two's trip each year. This last point is important as the radio element developed when the holidays took place during better HF conditions. Now I generally only have 6m and 10m and even then only during the period May to August.

At the same time my FT-817, which is fine here, is not ideal for carting about. On the weight front, by the time I have added the data interface the 817 station is almost as heavy as my IC-7100, a vastly more capable radio. The 817 arrived back having mysteriously lost all its memories and at the same time it had taken on new settings. Fortunately the original ones are backed up here.

Anyway, I learned a lot, including how to deal with the almost total lack of small plugs, ferrites and wires that I discovered I needed. If I do this again I need to be better prepared.

I say that every time.
When I lambasted Yaesu for releasing the FT-818 (here), which is just the ancient FT-817 design with a few largely irrelevant tweaks, I was thinking that Yaesu are really losing the plot these days. Radios like the FT-991 and the FT891 are, in my view, backward-looking and rather outdated. Compare that with, say, the IC-7100 or any of the other recent SDRs.

Now, at last, we hear of the FTdx-101D - here

We do not have many details yet, but the 101 is clearly an up-market SDR. This model makes sense from a marketing point of view as it will allow Yaesu to recoup some of their development costs. By this I mean that most up-market radios selling at three times the price of a basic rig do not cost three times the amount to design or make, so expensive radios are big money earners. The £1000 market makes almost nothing, whereas the £3000 market funds everything else (the £8000 market is ... unprintable).
Early photo of the Yaesu FTdx-101D from the Martin Lynch site

The FTdx-101D looks like a competitor for the IC-7610 (which is actually £3500). I usually pour scorn on that sector of the market preferring 3.5 radios at £1000 to one radio at £3500. The IC-7610 will not do the job of two radios for me, but the FTdx-101D just might if it does indeed include two separate receivers, 70MHz, and the switching and audio connections I would need. I doubt very much if it will meet my needs, and anyway I already have two perfectly good radios.

With such sparse detail it may be that the FTdx-101D is actually aimed even higher up the market. Until we know the full specification and price we cannot be sure. It looks to me rather like the discontinued FTdx5000, which might put it in the £3500 to £4000 class.

I don't have a vacancy for a radio like that. Yes sure it would be nice to reduce the radio count by having one which did two jobs, but a second IC-7100 (for 6m, with the one I already have on 4m) would give me all that and two nice displays. OK, not quite the same specification, but very nice all the same.

My need is to listen on two bands at once, not actually transmit on both those bands simultaneously. So a radio with the ability to receive on two bands at once would, you would think, save money by only having one PA stage. Oddly, such radios actually cost three times more (plus, plus ...). 

I reckon that the Icom marketing department got the launch of the IC-7100 totally wrong. The normal method is to introduce the expensive version first, then bring along the cheaper ones later, gradually making cheaper ones after you have stung the enthusiasts for the premium price launch models. I know that I personally would have paid 50% more for what is a fine piece of equipment. So as if to compensate, the 7610 is hugely more expensive. No doubt the 101 will be pricey too. I would have thought that an SDR would cost a lot less to make than a complex multi-band superhet ...

Luckily, I do not need to do anything. If any item here was to be sidelined it would be the FT-817. The present alternatives to it are either unsuitable or far too expensive for my WSPR/drag to Greece radio.

Having pondered over the few details we have of the FTdx101D's technology, I soon expect to see down-market SDR replacements for Yaesu's ageing FT-857 and FT-450. Could it be that the FT-818 is just a short-term stopgap before a capable Yaesu portable SDR arrives to replace the FT-818 too? Oh I hope so.

As I always say, it is the conditions that make radio fascinating for me, not the equipment. But you do want to have something that gives you the best start.
The apartment in Greece had a television which had a German sports channel. On that I could watch the Eurosport highlights from the Giro d'Italia. Wow! What a wonderful race this year so far. Blistering every day now for three weeks and we still have the final two stages to come.

At least that took my mind off the cricket and the mysterious RF feedback problems.



Monday, 14 May 2018

Back from a trip, Deep Search and review of small boxes.

I am back from one of my jaunts. As usual it was a rail journey. Strikes on the French railway system put me off my planned route, so it had to be closer to home. It is my belief that you cannot appreciate the world if you do not know your own country so it was time to take a week off and visit The Scottish Highlands.

At this point I usually show a shot of me standing in front of a sign taken in South East Italy, or Belgium, or some similar far-flung place. However, the two shots of me proudly standing below the sign "Welcome to Wick" are both horribly out of focus. D'oh. So I will just have to rely on a photo taken on my phone out the train window ...
Lough Awe captured from the window of the Glasgow to Oban train
OK, I took better photos than this, but it seems to capture the moment better than the others. With trees flashing past as we sped along there was little I can do about the composition.

Having visited Oban, and Mallaig on the West Coast, plus Thurso, and Wick in the "Far North", all in short order, staying in Crianlarich and Dingwall along the way, I can confirm that the Highlands are high. I even took the hand portable and heard ... nothing.
Back here and I received an email from Joe, K1JT. Joe makes two good points about Deep Search. Some of you may recall my long and rambling posting on the subject here.

Firstly Joe has explained that most JT65 EME QSOs do not rely on Deep Search. "The fraction of QSOs (and decodes) that require DS is small for nearly all stations -- and certainly for those qualifying for, say, DXCC. Careful operators use DS to make QSOs faster when signals are marginal, because subsequent messages (after a full decode) are less likely to require repeats". That certainly agrees with my limited experience.

Joe also goes on to make another interesting point - "Recent versions of WSJT-X offer "a priori" (AP) decoding for the modes QRA64, JT65, and FT8.  This feature makes no use of an accumulated callsign database; instead, it makes use of information accumulated during a QSO.  It's very powerful, and works well; it's described in somewhat more detail in the WSJT-X User Guide"

Yes, though I have mentioned here before that not everybody reads the WSJT-X User Guide. They should.

Joe's efforts on behalf of amateurs have brought us very important extra resources for our research. In particular my knowledge of propagation has been vastly helped first by WSJT modes and then those brought together in the WSJT-X suite. I have passed along my thanks for his efforts.
It was nice to have a 2 metre QSO with Jeremy, M0XVF, yesterday. We have broadly similar stations but the terrain between us has always made the 133km path between us marginal. This was my first SSB contact on my revised 2m set-up, and so my first with my low noise amplifier. As it turned out, Jeremy has also installed an LNA and a sequencer. The result was that we had an easy contact peaking above S9 at times.

That little box on my mast is proving it's worth.
Several readers were somewhat surprised to hear that I had bought a small transverter for 70MHz portable use. It isn't really a quality item but it works. When I bought it I had a dim recollection that somewhere in the "general radio bits" box (an Ikea children's toy box re-purposed for this use) was a small box marked by me "70MHz bandpass filter ex-PMR, 10W max".
"Bandpass filter" plus 20 pence piece for scale
I cannot recall now where this came from. I will need to test it and make sure it is indeed bang on 70MHz, as if it came from a Low Band PMR radio it might need some tweaking. Still, I have a larger box with the right sockets to put it in and it should be just what I need to clean up the Ukrainian transverter's output.

I usually remember what is in the bits boxes because I often have to trawl through all of them looking for something which should be in "Computer Bags" box (yes, some of it is bagged and tagged within a box!) but turns out to be mis-filed in "Microphones" (where all the mics are loose in the box). But that is where the memory usually stops - where it came from and how I got it is often lost in the mists of time. But at some stage I must have thought this trifle was worth keeping for some unknown future project.
Speaking of transverters, the big brother box ME2HT on 2 metres now has a temperature controlled fan on top and a temperature sensing probe inside it.

The PA module is fine, but the mixer box starts with ambient at switch on and climbs relentlessly on receive from 20 to well over 30C. Then it wobbles all over the place. A bit of transmitting takes it beyond 35C at which point I feel the need of the fan.

The sensor turns on the fan at 30C or off at 29C. Net result is that the normal range of temperature fluctuation is now down to 2 degrees.

It's still a lash-up. To get the fan blowing on the right module I have fitted the top panel back to front. If I decide I need to fit it there permanently I will need to turn the panel back and drill ventilation holes through it. I'll try putting the top panel back and blowing the air from the back. Never drill holes if you don't really need to.

I am also toying with the idea of a small heatsink on the mixer module box. As that would still be inside the case I would still need the fan.

The benefit now is that the frequency quoted on FT8 is the same after I have completed a QSO as it was before. It is only a tiny benefit, but I would still rather have it.
Another small box useful during various tests has been my rarely used Trimble Thunderbolt GPS frequency standard. Once locked onto GPS it produces 10MHz with high stability, plus copious harmonics right up to 150MHz. It also has a 1 pulse per second output. It has a parallel connection to the computer. The original software has long ceased to work with modern Windows operating systems but "Lady Heather" software by KE5FX works well.
GPS Antenna, Trimble Thunderbolt and PSU
The Trimble can "discipline" the PC clock allowing accurate timing for data modes without an internet connection. I bought it on eBay and it is ex-equipment (the give-away is the sicker marked "used", surely an understatement). This is old tech these days. Much more compact and cheaper GPS standards are available now. It works though.

The PSU is in fact the new generic noisy one supplied by the eBay seller mounted in an ex-PC PSU box.
David, GM4JJJ kindly sent me a Mini-Circuits splitter for the receive path for my transverters.
Top - Rx Splitter, Bottom - FCD, Right - Fan Controller
Here it is linked to the Fun Cube Dongle, which can provide a panoramic view of the 2 metre band or, for example, the ability to listen on the SSB calling frequency while working on FT8. During testing with the GPS standard the FCD proved very frequency stable.

Sharing the same space for now is the lashed-up temperature control for the ME2HT fan. I see we are on 29.4C and the fan is running.
I live in the land of little boxes.




Friday, 4 May 2018

At last, Spring is here

Finally, the time of year has arrived when the evidence is here - our long Winter's days of waiting are over.

It has started!

Of course I refer to the Giro d'Italia cycle race which started its 101st iteration today in Jerusalem.

Well, not just that. The Sporadic Es season has started in the Northern Hemisphere and meteor scatter propagation has picked up again too.
28MHz WSPR spots to/from GM4FVM 24 hours up to 17:00 on 4 May
I have been rather distracted by other things, so the Lyrid meteor shower in late April and the Eta Aquariids just about now have largely passed me by. Not without some activity though
QSOs by meteor scatter at GM4FVM 15 April to 4 May 2018
Es activity has really got underway. 50MHz FT8 has been heaving:-
Snapshot of 50MHz activity in a 15 minute period on 3 May 2018 on PSK Reporter
I even managed to capture a new DXCC for me on 6m on 4 May with S01WS in Western Sahara. I had seen this station on 6m last year but never made the contact. Today they were very strong, and I also managed to double my contacts in Algeria by adding 7X2TT to last year's scalp of 7X2KF, and indeed work them both today. Together with three new squares, that was not a bad haul from 6 QSOs on 50MHz today.

With general mayhem underway in the FT8 window I have been tending to sit on the sidelines and watch.

Nothing so far on 4m Es, though with German stations active again this year during the period May to August I managed two QSOs amongst the meteor scatter list above.

On the two metre side I have been much perplexed by miniscule drift in my TS-590SG/transverter combination. Not that this would count as drift were it not for FT8 and similar data modes. Both piece of equipment are fitted with high-specification oscillators. The drift is very slight. They both drift in the same direction. This is irritating, but it never seems to be enough to affect a decode. I can see it on the FT8 waterfall. Over a period of time it amounts to perhaps 15Hz, a laughably small total in the days of yore, but it annoys me.

Both the TS590SG and the ME2HT transverter are drifting the same way, making the beacons I check against and my GPS standard appear to drift downwards.

I did open up the TS-590 to check that it had the fans fitted the correct way round (no kidding, this is a fault which many of them have) and I even removed the TCXO and inspected it. I re-soldered the TCXO joints. Nothing seems to stop the TS-590SG gradually rising in frequency as it slowly warms up.  I never noticed this on 6m and it must just be because the transverter is also moving that it came to light. However, it is a tiny amount and very slow so I think I can say that the TS-590SG is stable.

The transverter, on the other hand, can be made to gradually drift downwards by 5Hz by placing a fan on the top slots. So why not leave the fan in place? Good point. I will probably fit a fan on the top of the transverter as a permanent feature.

It does not really bother me but I had hoped that my days of fitting fans to things were over.

I used to have an FL50/FR50B combination. They drifted like plastic in the oceans, bobbing up and down. In that case it was Kilohertz, not Hertz. It never bothered anybody then, but now I expect something close to perfection. Both the transverter and the TS590 are very good on their own, it is just a pity they both move together in the same direction, adding to my delusion that this matters.

The main cause of drifting is my own self-doubt, and my new-found ability to measure tiny changes in frequency.

The transverter/TS590 combination is fine. All it needed was a fan. It took me days to sort it out and it was a frustrating business as mostly it is in my head.

Just as well I am not a perfectionist.
Speaking of the Giro d'Italia, I am hoping for another scorching race like last year's. Tom Dumoulan, the handsome Dutch powerhouse is defending his title, with my hopes - Esteban Chavez, the ever-smiling Columbian 2nd in 2016 - the combative Fabio Aru 2nd and 3rd in the past - and the outsider Simon Yates - all in the mix.

The thing about the Giro, unlike the other Grand Tours, is that it is spirited and open. Last year Dumoulan made a heroic personal challenge to beat Nairo Quintana. The Giro is unlike the Tour de France, which in my view is too easy for a strong team to manage.

They will eventually get from Israel to Italy (not by bike). The race lasts three weeks. How I will find the time to watch it is still unclear.  After four series of Masterchef Australia (3 months each) I am now wading through Masterchef USA.

There are things like this which are more important than radio you know.




Sunday, 22 April 2018

Auroral radio images and my 2m setup.

There was an aurora here on 20 April. Rather than actually making radio contact with anyone (I heard OZ, GMs local and on Orkney, beacons in GI etc...) I decided to use my time to try to get a decent image for this blog.

For those who cannot imagine what an auroral radio signal sounds like, this blog is not going to be much use. You can find some auroral recordings on the Internet, and there are even some of GM4FVM out there.

Instead I shall try to show a beacon received via aurora on my JT65 waterfall - in this case GB3NGI the 2m beacon on the Antrim Plateau in Northern Ireland...
GB3NGI as heard via Aurora at GM4FVM on 20 April 2018, with a faint direct signal too
Here you can see the the wide traces of the beacon as it switches every minute between JT65B and its CW identification. I was pointing my antenna at 22 degrees, the azimuth angle which seemed to give the strongest AU signal at the time. Despite the beacon being at 253 degrees there is still just enough signal coming directly from the beacon to show up to the left of the auroral signal.

Note how strong the AU signal is. Also it is Doppler shifted by about 400Hz (from the direct carrier to the centre of the distortion) in this instance. This is on 144MHz; the Doppler shift and distortion are less on 70MHz and 50MHz, and on those bands SSB contacts are practical with a bit of care. Trying to have an SSB QSO on 144MHz with this going on is a struggle but certainly worth a try.

EDIT I now notice some aircraft scatter too, on the faint direct signal at 16:41. This has produced the slanted lines due to Doppler shift caused by the moving aircraft.

Then I tried to swing the beam, first pointed at the peak of the auroral signal, and then direct at the beacon:-
GB3NGI on 20 April with the beam swung from AU to direct at 16:58
You will probably need to enlarge these images by clicking on them. They will not look too good on a phone, probably better on a PC or laptop,

Anyway, the bottom 4 traces are showing the signal when I beamed North at the Aurora, and the top two when I turned the beam West to the beacon. Obviously the signal via the aurora is seriously distorted.

You can see the difference clearly on the JT65B signal which was sent during the even minutes:-
It is easy to see the modulation on the direct signal, on the auroral signal the distortion completely hides the tones. This is what makes it so difficult to use data modes, or even SSB, during an aurora. CW turns these wide signals on and off, and despite the absence of any tone, it is just about understandable. Any effective data mode might need to have on/off switching which would make it very slow compared with JT65. PI4 is a beacon mode which does work during aurora, in some circumstances anyway.

Also interesting is the effect on the CW ID coming from the beacon on the odd minutes:-
Here the wideband distortion is almost as wide as the JT65 section. However, you can see the CW callsign being sent, which causes a slight break in the wide signal. That is where auroral CW QSOs are made, by turning on and off signals which are hundreds of Hz wide.

If you have never experienced listening to an aurora you have really missed out on an amazing experience. I hope being able to see it in this way has made it easier to understand if you are not familiar with it.
I have written a long piece of drivel about my present 2m set-up.

Then I realised that I somewhere I have a drawing of what I planned, and basically the photographs should be most of what needs to be included ...
That says it all about the connections really.

TS-590 with the display showing the correct 2m frequency

This photo shows the TS-590 configured to run the transverter, with the display showing 144.429.2. The only issue with setting the tx frequency display to show directly on the 2m band is that then it only shows down to hundreds of hertz, rather than tens of hertz which is the normal resolution. As I often use data modes which give the full readout this is not much of a problem.

The significance of 144.4292 is that by convention I set the dial frequency to produce an 800hz tone on the GB3VHF beacon on 144.430000. This is easy to do as I set the beacon's steady tone to place the line directly on 800hz on the JT65B waterfall, and I must be on 144.4292. Then I juggle with the transverter offset in the 590s menu to bring the display to the correct point.

The transverter is an ME2HT-Pro2. This is capable of 60W output on 2m and I chose a 14 to 16 MHz IF.

To open the transmissions up to the full 14 to 16MHz range required to cover all of the 2m band I had to modify the TS-590 to allow it to transmit across the entire 2MHz range.

The modification is well described on the Internet. It involves removing a link ("zero ohm resistor") from one of the boards inside the radio. As this is a surface mount device it is fairly difficult to find and I asked John, G1VVU, to help me. It turns out to be fiddly, as not only is it small but you need to lever it off the board and unsolder both sides at the same time.
TS-590 - spot the link to allow transmission anywhere up to 30MHz
If you can see it there you are doing fairly well. The screw heads give some indication of scale, and they are tiny too.

Once liberated it shot off into the depths of the radio. John retrieved it under his finger nail and offered it to me so that I could keep it for later. I did not keep it as any hope of getting that back in there is lost. My eyesight is not up to it. It is minuscule - I knew that SMD devices are tiny, but I do not often have to work with them.
No, I cannot see it either.
Anyway, after that the TS-590 is free to send 1mW down the coax to my transverter, all the way from 14MHz to 16MHz.

I think that I can hear in the distance some of you saying this is a very complex road to go down just to improve on the Icom IC-7100's performance. Well, maybe, but what is the alternative? We shall have to see how the new IC-9700 works out, but transverters are still the method used by most amateurs who want to have the best chance of working weak signal traffic on VHF and UHF.




Monday, 16 April 2018

JT65, EME and the reality of Deep Search for me.

I have had to re-write this posting. I initially spent quite some time dealing with issues around the possibility of false QSOs - indeed the possibility of JT65 QSOs carried out using JT65 not being QSOs at all. The statistics of this are clear to me - JT65 with or without "Deep Search" is unlikely ever to produce any more false QSOs than may happen anyway using other modes. Sometimes mistakes are made, sometimes I get QSL requests for SSB QSOs I never made. It happens.

However, then I began to look again at SM2CEW's note and I realised that a central plank in his argument is not that DS produces doubtful QSOs but that:- "There is, therefore, a great risk that over time this will devalue the achievement of making QSO’s . Furthermore, it creates an imbalance when comparing achievements for awards, toplists or in contests." I think that maybe he doesn't like the idea that JT65 used with Deep Search challenges the efforts of those who did EME before JT65 and Deep Search came along. You will see where this changed the tack of my article.

Sorry this is so long but it is both complex and complicated.
SUMMARY: Deep Search only generates callsign suggestions, it does not generate QSOs. These callsign suggestions are occasionally wrong (false) but that does not, in my view call the entire process into question. Good operating still makes the difference.

Earth-Moon-Earth communication, "EME" (or "Moonbounce" as it is often rather inaccurately called), is bound to be on the edge of radio amateur capabilities. The path length is about three-quarters of a million kilometres, and the path loss on 144MHz is around 250dB. 99.9% of your signal is never going to reach the Moon and only about 7% of that is going to be "bounced" (scattered) back. The Moon is not a flat surface, and it moves around in space. Despite what you hear about it always having one face turned towards the Earth it wobbles, and for a lot of the time it is below the horizon. Add to that the fact that its elliptical orbit moves it closer and farther away from the Earth over time and you have a pretty tricky object to use to scatter your radio signals back to Earth.

The fact remains that EME can be done, and therefore many of us set it as a target to be achieved. For me it is not an end in itself but a level of technical efficiency to be reached, whereas for others it is an obsession to throw themselves into. Just like any aspect of amateur radio it has the potential to take over your life. This was especially so in the days before specially designed data modes, which basically means before the advent of home computers with sound cards. Before data modes EME was the preserve of the technically brilliant and the very determined amateur (i.e. not me). After data modes it became possible for modest stations to achieve EME contacts, though possibly only by taking advantage of the "super stations" with good set-ups at the other end of the QSO.
Watching a super station at GM4FVM provides hours of innocent fun (note the failed call ...)
By "modest" station I mean one like mine. I have a reasonable radio, 300W available, an antenna with a 3m boom and a rotator capable of pointing the antenna accurately at the Moon. That might be "modest" in the world of terrestrial stations, but it is positively tiny in EME terms. My station is just about the simplest setup capable of sustaining communication via the Moon, and even then I depend on a super station being at the far end. The super station would have multiple antennas, switchable polarisation, at least 1000W of power, very low loss co-ax, low noise masthead pre-amp, and antennas capable of being tilted upwards to track the Moon's elevation. I am not in that league so I am just chipping off a few contacts to find out how it can be done, and hopefully get better over time.

The difference between me making a QSO and not making one is down to fractions of a decibel.  I obviously want to have all the advantages but there is no point trying if it is not genuine. I would not want to do it if it was not valid.

This rather long ramble is meant to set the scene for a discussion of "Deep Search". Deep Search (DS) is a setting in the WSJT-X suite allowing the use of algorithms which compare partial received data with data already stored in the receiving station's computer. For example it would allow partial callsign information to be compared with a callsign stored in the computer, and then the software will make a judgement as to whether it has detected enough of the data to confirm the callsign. This has been compared to a CW operator hearing "GM4F?M", not being sure of the ? symbol and concluding that this is likely to be GM4FVM, rather than GM4FDM. I would say it is a pretty common occurrence for operators to do this, or to conclude that what sounds like a greeting of 72 is really 73, or that what sounds like a signal report of 2299 is really 599 with a dot missing.

That representation of DS, of the CW operator correcting obvious missed characters, is often quoted but it is not quite accurate. The inner workings of the decoding process for JT65 are fiendishly complex. It is not as simple as correcting a character. And here it gets a bit like self-driving cars. People are alarmed to think that a computer might make a decision which could result in a crash or loss of life. At the same time, these decisions are taken by all sorts of people every day, and many of those are not folks I would trust with my life.

I remember staring up at someone from my position prone in the gutter, having been thrown down the road after his car drove headlong into my motorbike, and him saying "I didn't see you". As the ambulance staff scraped me of off the road I might have thought that a computer controlled car might possibly not have driven into me. The point is, computers might be able to make better decisions than a human, but do we trust them? Why should I trust humans more when they keep driving into me?

I blundered into this sea of doubt during my posting here on 30 March, here. As I said, I followed W7GJ's settings, save that I used less aggressive values to save some processing power. W7GJ certainly advocates the full settings, including turning on "averaging" (building up data across listening periods) and reducing "synch" which is likely to show up as some spurious responses as well as correct ones.

Gav, GM0WDD, posed me this interesting question ...
What are your thoughts on deep search? Peter, SM2CEW, has written a thought provoking article on it.

A good question Gav and it deserves a good answer. Sadly I am not very experienced in the world of EME, but not knowing much never stopped me pontificating before.

Far be it for me to disagree with SM2CEW, who has been around EME for much longer than I have. I dare say he is right and fundamentally I agree with him if indeed the limited information which is transmitted in DS has an injurious outcome. I just have not seen any evidence that his doom-laden outcome has come to pass.

I think that SM2CEW is over-reacting.

Or rather was over-reacting, as I first read Peter's comments some years ago. He seemed to be making good points at the time. Now I have actually tried EME and set this argument against the practicalities of using the Moon, it all looks entirely different. Things have moved on in my thinking.

The issue started for me with the question of whether JT65, Deep Search and the whole thing is a con trick? This is not what Peter said, but it was what immediately mattered to me.

If indeed deep search was liable to cause lots of false contacts, using callsigns generated in the WSJT software, then presumably active EME stations would be deluged with requests for QSL cards for those contacts. If they were false contacts based on DS-generated data then the QSOs would not be in their log books and they would have to reject them. I have not heard of this deluge happening.

In fact, why isn't it happening? What is the factor stopping us all being fooled into meaningless non-QSOs with callsigns generated in our computers?

Could it be that both stations are colluding by denying the weaknesses of JT65 and DS, and confirming QSOs they know are not genuine? Maybe, but I am not so easily taken in and all it takes is a few of us to blow the whistle on something like that and down it comes.

Are we all being hoodwinked by DS? I cannot see how we could be, but I wanted to test it out.

As I understand it, only the callsigns are included in deep search. The shorthand responses are not. I am not familiar with how the shorthand responses are verified. For this purpose when I write DS I tend to mean deep search operating as part of the wider JT65 software, as I think that most people would regard any contacts in which any part has been subject to deep search as affecting the whole QSO.

Yes, DS can produce false results:-
A false decode at GM4FVM while using deep search and averaging.
This decode is obviously false. It features a callsign of a station I was trying to work the previous day on FT8. The frequency (86) is silly as EME stations tend to be evenly spaced 1kHz apart close to the 1200 mark on the waterfall. A message in that format is a reply to my CQ call and I was not calling CQ at the time. If he was calling 1210Hz lower than my tx frequency then he was pretty crazy, or more likely he does not exist. That call is simply an artifact and it is easy to see it as such.

In a funny sort of way that type of false decode is good news. It shows how unsophisticated DS's guesses really are.

At this point in my first draft I outlined what I see as a strong argument that after seeing a false posting the chances of a false QSO are tiny. Believe it or not this is a shortened version.

At random, the probability of hitting the correct sequence of responses for a QSO is one right sequence in 823,542 tried outcomes. A JT65 QSO may not look like a random situation but it is - only in the one case where the outcome is correct is there a "right" answer to a decode. All my answers to a false decode would be "wrong" and I might as well send anything, if, indeed, DS is conjuring the whole thing up in my hard drive.

If this statistic seems rather far-fetched then feel reassured that it is the same principle which stops the lottery from being easy to win, or your bank card being cloned. I doubt if this was done deliberately, but the structure around the amateur QSO sets up a format which is very difficult to fake - and just generating random replies does not work very well. So, even if DS could generate callsigns which seemed plausible, the chances of anything randomly generated hitting on the right QSO format and fooling you into thinking you had a real station are tiny.

My analysis is the sort of thing you get when an economist becomes a radio amateur.

So if random responses would not work, could DS accidentally be programmed into JT65 with the result that it produces false QSOs? In other words, can it progress down the QSO structure or does it just fire off once any time it sees something plausible? I put this to various tests. In particular I spent two days waiting for a false decode and when I got one I tried answering it to see if I could generate a false result.

Of course I did not actually transmit my reply. There is no need to as DS had generated the false call out of nowhere (actually a birdie), then could it generate a QSO? However, I still put my reply into the WSJT-X message box and pressed "Enable TX", only turning off the transmit signal path further downstream. The receive path stayed as normal, and the birdie which produced the false decode remained.

The false decode I did get is again obviously wrong, not a CQ, not a reply to my CQ call (which I did not make), so I was being a bit silly replying to it. However, in the interests of science ...
What happened when I replied to a false decode --- nothing.

20 minutes later and all my replies had gone without any response. The false QSO had no sign of arriving. It was never going to anyway because no response on the receive side is not something I had figured into my statistics. I have seen the same false decode repeat in the past and I expected that to happen again. No response (or a repeat) means that there is FAR less of a chance of a false QSO being generated than random figures would suggest. At this stage I accepted that the chances of a DS originated false QSO is likely to be no worse than human error and JT65 and DS is probably more reliable that a human.

Anyway, I am not going to do that exercise 823,542 more times only to find that a false QSO is, indeed, less likely than that. Replying to a false decode, or not replying, seems to make no difference, so there is no sign that a false QSO could ever result other than by a hugely improbable set of circumstances.

I also looked at the possibility of there being a real station calling CQ and being answered by somebody else. If I happened to call them at exactly the right time they might reply to someone else and my DS substituted my callsign for the other calling station. Once again probabilities come into this but lets just say that a similar thing could happen in any mode - I have seen it happen often in DXpeditions and contest operations where callsigns are not repeatedly used. The use of shortcuts in EME makes this type of mistake more probable, but the shortcuts came into use before JT65 was developed. This is where I find that validation from the chat room comes into its own, rather than being only a drawback as Peter seems to suggest.

If there really is no practical chance of JT65 with DS actually fooling us, beyond the odd obvious howler, then apart from making it easier for us to complete EME contacts, what is the problem?

What point is Peter trying to make in his piece? He says:-
"We appreciate that all of the historical achievements, like tropo distance records or DXCC
awards that were made using CW/SSB are indeed impossible to compare to the ones made
using digital modes, such as JT65. The fact that Deep Search QSO’s presently have the same
status as traditional modes for DXCC is something that I find totally ridiculous. The amount
of DXCC awards issued on 144 MHz have ”exploded” since the launching of Deep Search.
This is of course nice for the operators who have been wanting such an award, but they cannot
be compared to earlier achievements, using traditional modes."

Hold on. What is a "traditional mode"?

Amateurs previously used CW for EME, in most cases anyway. When it came to working CW they departed from the conventional QSO structure by dispensing with the exchange of callsigns at each over of transmission after the first exchange and adopted the shorthand exchanges "RO", "RRR" and "73". Those were sent without confirmatory callsigns and therefore you could have been receiving the replies from anybody. Are CW exchanges made with that shortcut real QSOs? To what extent is RO a signal report anyway? Does an isolated CW shortcut without a callsign attached confirm anything?

By avoiding the difficulty of having to decode CW reports like 559 the CW EME operators opened the door to challenges that their own minimising information was making EME "too easy". Therefore there is not much scope for them to blame the rest of us when things move on along the same path.

Have we gone too far with DS in further minimising the exchange of information to constitute a QSO? Surely that is a matter of opinion. In my opinion, no, we have not gone too far with DS, simply because I reckon that it use it is supported by the evidence.

I cannot see how JT65, DS, averaging and all the rest are not just further steps in making EME achievable. I am not trying to compare my achievements with people who did EME using CW. In any case, CW EME operators used shortcuts when it suited them, and the minimal information they chose as acceptable could have been said to be insufficient at the time.

This brings my mind back to the comment made by the editor of Practical Wireless who said that he hoped that the arrival FT8 did not make 6m DX so easy that it challenged his DXCC standing. Perhaps he forgets that yagi antennas made DX "easy" for him to work his DXCC entities. Or that SSB made phone contacts "easy". The whole process of developing new methods, circuits, antennas and understanding of propagation is about making contacts "easy".

Sure QSOs set up in chat rooms can open the door to too much information being exchanged over the Internet, which reduces the standing of the QSO. Could the same not have been said about skeds arranged over the phone, or via HF links, or even by post card in the good ole' days?

Over time lots of things have made awards and contests easier or harder. After World War 2 there were three entities (East Germany, West Germany and Saarland) which are now part of one entity - Germany. Did that make it harder to achieve DXCC then, but then before we also had Yugoslavia and now we have Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, Serbia and now also Kosovo. Overall, do these things make DXCC easier or harder over time? You cannot blame deep search for all that, and frankly you cannot blame deep search for people exploiting it as a technical possibility which did not exist before either.

In my view amateur radio is for all of us, and not for the few. Perhaps these few who worked hard and gathered their status in difficult circumstances deserve to be specially recognised. I do not believe that flinging mud at JT65 is the way to increase their standing.

It goes further than that for me. By making EME possible for those with "modest" stations (albeit by piggy-backing on the lavish expenditure of the super stations), JT65 and DS is part of widening and democratising amateur radio. What else should we do? Un-invent JT65 and DS so that ancient old dozers can talk about how they had it so tough in the old days and therefore we should too?

SM2CEW has listed several issues with DS. However, he does not seem to be opposing it. He seems to be asking for the achievement of other operators to be recognised. Fair enough.

He then says:-
"But more important is to consider a better definition of what constitutes a digital QSO!
Increasingly, it appears to be be NOT about an RF radio contact, which in my view a bad
thing for our hobby. I like radio communication and I feel that our QSO’s should be made via
the radio waves. If we continue to allow the computer to decide how little information is
received and guesses what is missing, doing away with the operator, we are heading the
wrong way."

This goes too far for me. It isn't the computer which decides, it is the software which decides what to suggest. I have no problem with the software deciding that the signal level is so low that it will make a suggestion based on probabilities. As you can see, I reckon I am able to distinguish between good and bad suggestions. This is not doing away with the operator in my view.

Peter's statement ignores the rest of the QSO apart from the callsigns, it ignores that part played by QSL cards since the dawn of amateur radio to validate contacts, it ignores the shortcuts and assumptions operators were already making. It is something to hide behind if you want to avoid progress.

"If we continue to do xxx, then something will happen" is often said. But when we did continue, and this did not happen, then can we eventually accept that what we are doing is reasonable? In a particular instance, EME, we are comparing a representation of part of a callsign with a stored version of a callsign. It seems to work. Why not do it? I do not see this as part of an inevitable descent into making us Skype operators.

I agree with Peter about this:-
"It should be about skill, judgement and personal integrity."
I trust Joe Taylor on those counts. I hope I show some too.

As I often say about data modes, if you don't like them, don't do them. They are not compulsory.

It is perfectly possible to work EME with JT65 but without DS. You can turn it off.

The challenge of trying EME has prompted me to use a lot of new skills and learn new things. It has prompted me to improve my station, and not just for EME use either. If in the end I have to content myself with a lower standing than the great and the good in this hobby, then so be it. Times change. 
When Professor Higgs predicted the existence of the famous boson which is named after him I guess he thought he would never see one. Nobody has. The Higgs boson has been "proved to exist", but only by asserting that the probability of certain events occurring for any other reason was very low. Often all we have to go on is probabilities.

It seems to me that SM2CEW's fears are not justified. He is entitled to his views, and so am I. He and others are free to place their earlier achievements on a higher plane than mine. That was then and this is now. I am not in this hobby to preserve my exalted place (just as well?) so it matters naught to me.

There are issues around the exchange of real-time supporting information on chat rooms. The same comment could apply to any mode and KST. Nothing that I have seen on EME chat rooms so far devalues the contacts claimed. In fact the chat rooms seem only to confirm that the contacts reported are genuine.

Does using JT65 with DS (and averaging) robustly produce results which tally with real-time activity reported via the Internet and supported by QSL cards? I believe so.

Do the extremes of improbable QSOs suggested by using an unreliable mode actually happen with DS and JT65? For example, if DS is really predicting callsigns out of random noise and scraps of birdies, I could imagine false QSOs occurring when the Moon was below the horizon? Not in my limited experience. You might expect a false decode, but not a false QSO.

Has it fooled me too? Like the Apollo moon missions, which I now realise were faked in a gravel pit in Essex.
Ask me later to see if I am still satisfied.

So far it seems to be going fine.