Thursday, 28 May 2015

Some dx, but not my greatest radio day.

Actually, yesterday was a pretty awful day.

I had to avoid a car crash with another driver who was going too fast and could not brake in time. I had to decide to take a risk which almost made me crash into a third vehicle. Once everybody had stopped amidst a smell of hot tyres and brakes, I became very angry and could easily have got out and had a good set too with the idiot who caused it all. But I didn't. Instead I tried to ignore it and ended up shaking like a leaf later and being unable to sleep. But enough of that.

Yesterday there was some dx, including CT1XC on 4m. Being in Coimbra he was in a new square for me - IN50 (1793 km).

So I have managed most of my targets for 4m this year already. Must set tougher targets.

I also worked the usual 4m suspects, CT1FFU (IM59 1897) and CT1HZE (IM57 2122).

There was a good opening on 6 metres, but I spent most of that chasing round a fault on the antenna. I connected the 6m antenna to the Flex and everything went weird. After quickly checking that every plug was tightly screwed up, I started at the antenna end and worked towards the rig (a mistake, as it turned out).

When I moved the SWR meter the antenna lead fell out of the back of the compression PL-259 plug. Strange. It turned out that the centre had not been soldered. Anyway, after a lot of ferreting about, it also turned out that even when the coax was in the plug there was an open circuit between the barrel and the pin. As the antenna is an HB9CV there should be a DC short. Without the plug, the braid and centre of the plug had a short circuit, so how could the plug be faulty?

There then followed a long spell of trying to resolve this issue, and eventually I changed the plug for another compression one and still it would not work. Then I found a thin sliver of the coax dielectric was sitting proud of the washer and stopping it making contact with the barrel of the plug.  It was very thin and almost invisible to my eyes.

Quick snip with the knife. Problem solved.

Except it wasn't.

After checking with the antenna analyser that a good match at 50MHz was out there on the end of the co-ax, there was no signal on the SWR meter. Not into the dummy load either. Could the SWR meter have failed at the same instant. No, but change it anyway. No still nothing, can 2 meters fail at once? Can 2 faults happen at once?

Yes, two faults can happen at once. If you forget to solder up a compression PL-259, it can fail when you moved the meter, but the original fault lies somewhere else. Took me a while to work that out.

Attention then turned to the patch lead between the meter and the Flex. Sometimes I buy these rather than make them and often they fail after a while and need to be resoldered. It was OK.

Finally my attention turned to the way the patch lead was connected to the Flex.

The Flex has BNC sockets. At some stage I have been in a rush and turned to a BNC to SO-239 socket to make the connection. Better would have been to make a single patch lead with a BNC for the Flex end and a PL-259 for the SWR meter end, but that takes time. Why not use my reliable BNC to 239 patch? That is hardly likely to fail...
The idea is not as crazy as it seems, as it allowed me (from time to time) to swap out the SWR meter and occasional linear and connect the 6m antenna direct to the Flex, or switch to the HF antenna, etc., using the SO239 socket.

It looks like the brass inside the pin slot of the socket has lost its spring, become deformed or broken. Anyway, it has stopped gripping the pin, and hence the basic problem.

I had bought the lead ages ago from Garex to release the strain on a handheld used in the car (I use handhelds as mobile rigs). Somewhere along the way, the handhelds changed over to smaller connections, the BNC one was redundant, migrated to the shack, and ended up here. There was no plan to it, it just happened by chance, Your Honour.

The whole process of fixing this took a couple of hours and I was QRT while I struggled with it.

It often says on railway level crossings "one train can hide another", a warning against impatience. I should paste on my shack wall "one fault can hide another".

If the compression plug on the SWR meter had not allowed the coax to pull out at the precise moment I was looking for a different fault, and if the coax had not happened to allow a tiny piece of plastic to prevent it being re-installed, a lot of this frustration would not have happened.

However, the basic cause to both these things was impatience on my part. No doubt in a hurry to do something else, I did not remember to solder up the compression plug. And no doubt to avoid making a BNC lead I used the handy patch. In both cases I should have done a better job. The fact that both situations worked without a problem for years does not excuse me.

Guilty of slack working.

I promise to be a reformed character and not cut corners again.

Now, I am off to shut my eyes - but when I do I only see a red Ford Fiesta sliding towards me at great speed.


P.S. I am just pasting the QSL image into the text. I do not know if this shortcut will work; if it doesn't I will do a proper job of saving it as a file and adding it later. But I am busy and I need to get on and do some work ... as the Simpsons say, "do it the American way ... do a half-assed job" (I can do those here too).
Edit - the shortcut didn't work so I have saved the file. So much for short cuts. Don't I ever learn ????

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Where is the DX?

Firstly VHF:-

VHF Sporadic E contacts:-

May 2011 33
May 2012 40
May 2013 37
May 2014 17
May 2015 (to date) 5

I am going to have a busy 5 days if I am to catch up the average. There has been zero for almost a week. I can see stations 500km South of me working further South, but from here it has been very bad. Normally, taking 4m, 6m and cross band contacts together, I have found an opening every third day. So far it has been one every 8.6 days.

Secondly 10m

Dire. The Solar Flux is down to 99. I waited over 20 hours between one WSPR spot and another, which is a record for me at this time of year. Not only is Sporadic E not getting this far North, but F layer dx has vanished for now.

Thirdly Conclusion.

We live and learn. I have no entitlement to good conditions, and I only learn when they vary. I actually like ups and downs. Mind you, it would be nice to have a bit of action soon.

Not worth spending £6000 on a fancy rig - if the bands are asleep it does not matter much.


Monday, 25 May 2015

Don't always believe the manuals (+ more about Flex 1500).

I am reading CQ-GTZM by Ross Bradshaw, G4DTD. He describes a "Fool's fault" - for example, if the brightness control on the radar is turned down, you might better to realise that if the fault is "no display". That would be better than taking it apart only to find everything seems fine.

This is a bit of a "Fool's fault".

After using the IC-7100 at the caravan I re-installed it in my shack shelving. I left the accessory plug until last. By then I could not see round the back of the rig so I looked in the manual. The manual diagram shows the 13pin DIN goes with the single pin at the top and the guide slot at the bottom.

I pushed it home and all worked fine on data until about two weeks later for the RSGB 70MHz contest. Then I wanted to use the IC-7100 as I was still testing the transverter. I was testing before the contest with Eddie, G0EHV, on SSB. The linears would not switch using the PTT line. I had not spotted that, since reinstalling, they had been working on RF sensing (now that I knew, I could see the spike in the SWR on the rig display when going to tx - this is not present on PTT switching).

A fairly easy issue to spot as the 144MHz linear was also not switching either. Neither the HF nor VHF PTT lines were working. It looked like the ACC plug was not seated, though it was fully pushed in.

Disconnecting everything and pulling it out of the shelving again revealed that the manual may show the ACC socket being slot down, but it is actually mounted 180 degrees the other way, with the slot at the top. No wonder it was not working.

The DATA 2 socket - the standard 6 pin mini-DIN for audio in/out and PTT switching - is also mounted the opposite way to the manual. Both manuals are the same, in my versions anyway. All the other sockets seem to be the right way up.

OK, a simple issue when you are standing with the back of the rig facing you, but awkward when it is mounted in shelving and you have decided to trust the manual. Maybe there is a correction somewhere, but I did not find it. If someone has pointed this out before I apologise for not having registered this strange fact.

I got it right every time before, but then I always trusted my own judgement - it only went wrong when I believed the manual.

I have been doing more tests with the IC-7100 and the Flex/ME4T combination. There is almost no difference between the FT-817/ME4T and the IC-7100, and what difference there is looks like random variation. This is what Iwould expect and it shows how odd the Flex results were.

I am pretty sure that there is nothing wrong with the Flex, but there may be something wrong with my setup. Possibly the VACs are causing a problem. Anyway, for the moment, and once again, I have swopped everything round.



Friday, 22 May 2015

Flex 1500 versus Yaesu FT-817 - surprise winner?

Final score (penalty shoot-out)

Yaesu FT-817 15
Flex 1500 10

The Yaesu took an early lead and the Flex 1500 never caught up. In fact, the Flex kept up the same slower pace all the way through and just kept falling further and further behind the FT-817.

The referee ended the contest as there was a clear leader - the Yaesu FT-817 - at every stage.

I have to say straight away that this is not the sort of test you would do in everyday amateur life. It is an extreme test under weak signal conditions. However, it is using the sort of conditions I meet every day.

The Flex is a fine rig for most purposes. But I wanted to know if I was right to think that it was not performing as well as I need in very low signal situations.

I know I am paranoid, but I felt sure that the Flex was not performing as well as I had expected. Just a feeling based on non-decoded meteor scatter signals.

If you read endless earlier posts, you will know that I found that my ME4-T transverter and the 817 produced good results on weak signals. Without giving it a lot more thought, I replaced the 817 with the Flex 1500, reasoning that it was better suited to transverter driving. However, I then found that something was not quite right. The Flex/ME4T combination seemed to decode too few meter scatter signals. I then found that the Flex AGC-T control was maxing out the VAC with noise at high settings. Even after resetting AGC-T, it SEEMED less successful than I expected.

Produce two weak identical signals and feed one of them into the Flex and another into some other receiver and prove there was nothing wrong with the Flex.

I was not likly to be a fault with the transverter, though if the results were identical it might be. So I decided to put a "tee piece" into the transverter output and feed identical signals to two receivers. The initial plan was for a comparison between the Flex and my Fun Cube Dongle. However, I had a problem with the Fun Cube dongle and decided to use the FT-817 instead. Not that the Flex would have a big problem seeing off the 817, but worth a try  ??????

The plan was to point the antenna at the GB3RAL beacon on 70.050 MHz. At 480km, RAL is marginal copy on JT65 from here, somewhere between no signal and -15dB in QSB measured on the WSJT software. That should be a good test for weak signal reception. Just set it up with two instances of WSJT software copying the signal, one from the Flex and one from the 817, leave it for several hours, and then compare.

1) The Flex is state of the art SDR and the Yaesu is a 20 year+ older analogue design (and a stripped down version of the FT-857 too)
2) The Flex is specifically designed for use as a transverter driver
3) For convenience, the 817 antenna connection was via the front BNC socket, which introduces noise from the nearby display
4) The Flex was set to the ideal 2.0kHz filter width, the 817 was just using the (optional) 2.7kHz Collins SSB filter - this difference should also improve the signal to noise figures produced by the software for the Flex.
5) The Flex keeps the signal in digital format all the way to the computer and the WSJT software, whereas the 817s signal is processed in analogue and converted to audio and then fed into the computers sound card (a Soundblaster) for conversion back to digital - lots of losses possible on the Yaesu side
6) While the digital signal passes directly from the Flex to the PC, the analogue audio signal passes via another stage, a ZLP Digimaster MiniPro data unit, for isolation purposes. This introduces another stage into the process, plus more noisy plugs, sockets and cables.

The diagram shows the set up-
I started at 17:00 and ended at 21:00 local time. I had intended to go on overnight, but I had not expected much difference.
This shows what some of the results looked like - this is the 817's screen. As it happens these two signals were both captured by the Flex too,  one at the same level, and one 1dB lower signal to noise.

After the test I went through all the results. I was looking for differences between signal to noise (S/N) figures - I was not expecting to find that the 817 decoded 50% more signals than the Flex, but that is what happened.

There were differences in S/N too. Of ten occasions when both rigs decoded a signal, S/N was the same in 5 occasions. On 3 occasions the Flex was 1dB lower, on 2 occasions the Flex was 2dB lower. As I reported earlier, I would have expected the Flex to be better on all occasions due to all the factors around using an SDR with better filters and lower losses due to digital signal route all the way.

So it was surprising to find the 817 doing better on S/N. What I had DEFINITELY NOT expected was to find 5 occasions when the Flex failed entirely to decode a signal heard on the 817. This was despite two of these being -22dB on the 817 (a level where the Flex did capture results 3 times) and the 817 also captured results at -24dB (twice) and -25dB, when nothing showed on the Flex at all.

OK, so it was marginal conditions and there will always be variations. And of course the S/N figures will be subject to variation due to other factors and all that sort of careful fiddling about. But nevertheless - the 817 did better than the Flex on EVERY count - it never showed lower S/N, it never failed to decode every signal the Flex did, but it also decoded 50% more.

Here's the thing. The waterfalls looked similar, but the 817 "sounded" brighter on the loudspeakers. I know that is just my opinion, but it is what started all this comparison in the first place.

I was just looking at the actual decodes on the WSJT screen. WSJT can also do "average" decodes based on processing - this can show up decodes based on partial reception of the JT65 signal. Of course I was not using that for this test, though the contribution to the average was also higher on the 817 - 25/50 compared to 16/50 on the Flex. this just confirms the other results. The Flex threw up an "average" decode for the RAL within a couple of cycles, whereas the Flex did not until it got a full decode.

This test has me back to thinking again. Should I run it for longer? Is there something about my Flex set-up which is causing a problem?

Was I right all along that the Flex is under performing? THEREFORE, is my paranoia correct?

Conclusions? Eh? More confusions.



Tuesday, 19 May 2015

How to deal with TVI, or do I mean IVT???

I think this link may work for about a week from 19 May 2015.

I need this guy to help me with my neighbours.

It is a 15 minute BBC radio programme.

There was also a web page about it here (link to BBC website).



Monday, 18 May 2015

Japan on 10m and Lithuania again.

I was interested to see this appear on my WSPR screen:-

2015-05-18 09:58  GM4FVM  28.126090  -23  0  IO85wu  +37  5.012  VK6YS  OF77xt  14638  9096 
 2015-05-18 09:52  VK6YS  28.126063  -15  -1  OF77xt  +30  1.000  GM4FVM  IO85wu  14638  9096 

For once I had raised my power on 10m WSPR to see if I could get a 2-way to Australia. When I saw that, I adjourned to JT65 to see if I could get a "QSO" (still looking for ZL really).

This was the immediate result:-

Immediate eQSL too.

He came back to my first CQ. He was quite strong here (-11dB) so I could easily listen to the QSO on the speakers.

Setup here was the normal one ::: FT-817, RM KL-203 running about 25 watts, Gainmaster ex-CB antenna. Mode JT65 using WSJT-X software (certainly the easiest way to run data). 9296km.

I scrounged around trying to get something better but I only made it to SP5FCZ on 10m. On 12m RZ4HL answered by CQ and gave me a report but then disappeared.

I am still surprised by that morning path to VK on 10 metres. It did fail for a couple of months earlier this year, but it seems to be back on a regular basis. I have used this path to get me into East Asia on a number of occasions, and a contact into Japan still makes me happy. Someday I would like to go there, but I doubt it will ever happen.

Yesterday brought a nice JT65 QSO into Lithuania on 6 metres.
LY2VM in KO14 at 1601km. It was KO15 that I had my doubts about in 4m, but as this was 6m it is perfectly legal. Or so I think. All I can do is work them and hope all is well. On 6m I am fairly sure, on 4m I have my doubts.

The easy way to put this to rest is to work Lithuania on SSB on 4m by Sporadic E. Is hasn't happened yet. LY2VM was the only station I could hear during yesterday's event. There was nobody else on 6m, never mind 4m.

Ah, it is just another challenge.

I have been watching stations on Malta working into G-land on 4m for about a week - I bet that is going to be a difficult one too.

Last night about 21:00 there were several stations, including Chris GM4ZFI (not far away) working into Brazil on 6m. I only heard snatches, and my CW wasn't up to it anyway. I wonder what I can do about that.



Sunday, 17 May 2015

Portable working on holiday.

If it is supposed to be a holiday I need to be able to relax. Not pound the airwaves all day.

So how it usually works is that I take the FT-817 and a few telescopic whips. Also in the bag go various coils of long wire, sometimes an ATU (which I bought second hand from GI4DOH about 35 years ago), audio leads, some bell wire with crocodile clips, and of course a laptop PC to work it all.

To be honest I am always trying to recreate 2 June 2011 when I sat on a balcony on Crete and worked IZ7BAS (978km), OE6KDG (1591) and OE5FIN (1698). That was just with the 817, its clunky PSU, and a flexi whip on the top. After that first day as SV9/G4FVM, I was hooked.

So for most holidays since I have dragged the FT-817 with me and I have had some success. To preserve the holiday aspect I tend to use data modes, and especially WSPR. This maximises the poor antennas and thrives on low power.

Also, WPSR allows me to set the radio up and leave it to run by itself. I can be luxuriating n the sun while the radio and PC are working away. And so it has been to Greece, France, Belgium, Ireland, Portugal, Spain ...

Usually I just work in "stealth" mode, stringing up antennas and keeping the power down to 5 watts maximum.

This time however, I took the Icom IC-7100 with me. The FT-817 cannot manage 5 watts on WSPR, whereas the 7100 can do it all day. Also I have the leads to separate the PC and IC-7100 using USB extensions, whereas the 817 has a habit of picking up interference from the computer due to the cable lengths. And the 7100 allows a few more watts for other data modes. I brought a small switch mode power supply, and all of it fitted into one cardboard box in the back of the car.

For the first four days this was a failure as I have mentioned before. Then I started using the antennas on the car. I only had 144/432 and 70MHz whips. I added the only thing I had to lengthen the 70MHz whip to work on 50MHz - a length of bell wire. I still had the telescopic whips for HF bands, but they are not very suitable for use outdoors - I only used the 10 metre band one.

Here is some of the work done on 6m:-
2015-05-15 13:58  GM4FVM/P  50.294506  -24  1  IO87ei  +37  5.012  DB0ZDF  JN49cx  1128  701 
 2015-05-15 13:52  GM4FVM/P  50.294529  -16  1  IO87ei  +37  5.012  DL4RU  JN69cr  1341  833 
 2015-05-15 13:44  DL4RU  50.294451  -25  0  JN69cr  +37  5.012  GM4FVM/P  IO87ei  1341  833 
 2015-05-15 13:36  GM4FVM/P  50.294479  -10  0  IO87ei  +37  5.012  PA3249  JO32hm  846  526 
 2015-05-15 13:32  GM4FVM/P  50.294527  -21  1  IO87ei  +37  5.012  DC9JVN  JN59ml  1303  810 
 2015-05-15 13:28  GM4FVM/P  50.294479  -22  1  IO87ei  +37  5.012  PA3249  JO32hm  846  526 
 2015-05-15 13:28  GM4FVM/P  50.294503  -13  1  IO87ei  +37  5.012  DK8NE  JN59fw  1237  769 
 2015-05-15 13:28  GM4FVM/P  50.294528  -23  1  IO87ei  +37  5.012  DC9JVN  JN59ml  1303  810 
 2015-05-15 13:26  PE1MXP  50.294479  -2  0  JO32gh  +37  5.012  GM4FVM/P  IO87ei  858  533 
 2015-05-15 13:18  DK8NE  50.294482  +4  1  JN59fw  +40  10.000  GM4FVM/P  IO87ei  1237  769 
When you see the antenna that was not so bad:-

If it looks like a whip with a droopy extension, that is what it is. Not technically correct but it worked.

Harry, PA3249, contacted me to tell me that he was beaming 165 degrees when he heard me. So I was off the back of his antenna. Looking at the photo above it is hard enough to work out what the front of my antenna is, and what is the back? It isn't even vertical.

On 10m I got around Europe as you might expect. This spot of a South African station pleased me, but it was weak. Not bad for a 1.1m telescopic whip. He did not hear me of course ...

2015-05-15 11:44  ZS6BNE  28.126111  -25  -1  KG33bu  +37  5.012  GM4FVM/P  IO87ei  9693  6023 

Added to this was my contact with SP2HMR on 4 metres. All together I was happy enough. It was not supposed to be a radio holiday, so anything is better than nothing.

I think that in future I have learned that I should use the car as a base for antennas. I need better antennas and certainly something better than the telescopic whips for HF. The IC-7100 worked well in the caravan.

I would say that holiday working is really just an effort to see what I can do with limited resources. In that sense it is not really about DX. It is more about having fun and trying to manage with whatever you have around you - like using a crocodile clip extension.

It was fun though. I encourage anyone to try it.



Thursday, 14 May 2015

Greetings from IO87ei, and CW contacts!!

Greetings from Grantown-on-Spey in Moray, IO87.

Here is my new antenna :--

For a new antenna it may look like a 6 year old car and a 12 year old caravan. Which is true, and if you look very carefully a very old whip can be seen at the back of the car.

After spending a few days in the caravan, this holiday seemed radio free. Over several days I heard F1OMQ, EB3DCS, IJ1PJH and HB9HLN on 6m metres.But none of them could hear me. As usual I spent ages stringing up dipoles and verticals, but with no result. I could not be heard. 10m was dire in the extreme.

Then it dawned on me that I might get better results using the antenna on the car. I strung co-ax between the car and the caravan. The improvement was dramatic. Suddenly with a socking great ground plane under them, things began to happen using vertical whips.

10m WSPR sprang into life. 6m was humming. However, on these bands I only have telescopic whips which are not really designed for the back of cars. They seemed to work though.

Then I plugged in the 4m mobile whip and worked Marcel SP2HMR in JO94 (1408km). Not bad for a mobile whip. And 59 both ways!

Why it has taken me days to work this out is a mystery to me. By now the holiday is nearly over. However, I may work a few more in the time left.

Note for future reference - organise some proper mobile whips for caravan/car operation.

It just goes to show how the obvious answer is not always the one that springs to mind.

We left for here on Sunday. A couple of people asked me to come on during the RSGB 4m CW contest. ME ... CW??? Anyway, that contest uses post code areas and mine is a rare one - TD for the River Tweed. So I came on and worked G4TSW (558km) and GM4VVX (277km). Just keep me to simple information, don't ask me difficult questions, and keep to 10 words per minute max. Then I am great. In general I am afraid of CW contests. I can sort-of do slow CW, and I can do contests, but both together stress me out. Still, nice to work VVX on tropo for the first time. Clive is not far away but there are a lot of mountains in the way. And our caravan is now up in those mountains.

Next report will probably be from the home QTH and a proper antenna will be in use. But in the meantime, this is getting to be more fun up here.



Saturday, 9 May 2015

Sporadic E at last, and polar Es too

Tah dah!

09/05/15 12:26-12:30 50MHz EA3NJ SSB 100W Hrd 59 MySigs 59 JN01OC Juan 1650km

At last! I have worked EA3N on 6m and I can take my long face off. Sporadic E worked. 9 May is not unusual.

There was a quite a bit of Es on 7 May but none of it heard here. It is very selective.

WSPR may not count as a QSO but this happened on 08/05/15:-

2015-05-08 10:24  GM4FVM  50.294438  -13  -1  IO85wu  +40  10.000  OH7AI  KP33on  1832  1138 
 2015-05-08 10:24  GM4FVM  50.294456  -23  0  IO85wu  +40  10.000  M1CDU  IO95ej  60  37 
 2015-05-08 10:22  OH7AI  50.294502  -8  -1  KP33on  +37  5.012  GM4FVM  IO85wu  1832  1138 
 2015-05-08 10:20  M1CDU  50.294462  -18  -2  IO95ej  +40  10.000  GM4FVM  IO85wu  60  37 
 2015-05-08 10:16  GM4FVM  50.294437  -19  1  IO85wu  +40  10.000  OH7AI  KP33on  1832  1138 

Nice 2 way WSPR with OH7AI. I think that M1CDU, who you can see was around at the same time, was working into Scandinavia too, which was great.

Sporadic Es is easy to spot, usually between 08:00 and 14:00 and then again between 17:00 and 21:00.

You also get Es in the late evening and night to the North. this type of "Polar" Es comes in different types often associated with aurora. There is also "Thule"-type propagation in the Summer and I have often sat up on 50MHz late into the night hearing stations in the far North - Jan Mayen, Iceland and Greenland.

So this was  an interesting one:-
2015-05-08 22:28  GM4FVM  50.294484  -16  1  IO85wu  +37  5.012  LA5TFA  JP99kq  1852  1151 
 2015-05-08 22:24  LA5TFA  50.294504  +0  0  JP99kq  +37  5.012  GM4FVM  IO85wu  1852  1151 
 2015-05-08 22:18  GM4FVM  50.294484  -13  1  IO85wu  +37  5.012  LA5TFA  JP99kq  1852  1151 
 2015-05-08 22:12  LA5TFA  50.294504  +9  0  JP99kq  +37  5.012  GM4FVM  IO85wu  1852  1151 

LA5TFA is a good distance (1852km), and there is not much further to go as TFA is right in the North of Norway in Troms county. I really enjoy seeing TFA during these openings, though I have to say that WSPR makes the observations easier.

If only there were more VHF WSPR stations in polar regions and we could find out more about these strange modes of propagation. I guess there are not many people around, never mind VHF enthusiasts.

I spent a long time today with a fine needle resetting the BNC socket on my transverter. It looked too wide and maybe not making good contact with the pin. Didn't make any difference. Might have been a fault though. You can never be too careful.

Finally, I managed another square on 4m. On 09/05/15 at 14:30 I worked DG1VL. That was square JO61WE at 1174, worked on JTMS mode. It was all the nicer having come from a random CQ call. On the face of it this should add to the total of squares, but I have noticed that I have in the log from August last year - DF1VL in JO65WE (not unlike DG1VL in JO61WE). But JO65WE is not even in Germany and the callsign does not seem to exist. Looks like an error in the log. But isn't it funny - just noticing now DF1VL is wrong and replacing it with DG1VL with just one number different in the locator as well? Spooky ...


Did I say that I have still not worked any Sporadic E this season on 4m or 2m???

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

You win some and you lose some.

It has been a brighter day on the meteor scatter front.

This week is the peak of the Eta Aquarids meteor shower. I did well in this shower last year, mostly on 6m. This year my 6m activity is hampered by the linear problem so it was always going to be mostly 4m this time

After working PF7M at 09:30 on the 4th of May (JO33 621km), I resolved to get up early and try on 5th May. Meteor showers are usually best around 07:00. The 5th turned out to be a complete waste of time. Not worth getting out of bed early ...

So I thought 6th might be worth a try. I worked OK2BRD at 10:15 (JN99 1528km). Both Erik, EI4KF and I had chosen 70.170 to work on and I had SP2MKO trying to work Erik at the same time. Erik moved to 70.165 and I went to 70.173. This proved to be a good move as we then went on to work various stations one after the other.

SP2MKO would be in a new square, so I would like to meet him again some day.

On 70.173 I was called by G4FJK. I would like to get a contact with Tim on this method of propagation. Even though I was getting him well, he could hardly hear me. We had decided in advance that I would beam at 90 to 120 degrees, and try to use backscatter. Unfortunately it did not work this time.

During all this fiddling about, DK5EW popped up on 70.173 at 11:00 and called CQ. He must have heard us and would work either one of us. His signals were very clear with regular bursts.
DK5EW is in JN48 square at a distance of 1155 km. That was new square for me on 4m, down in South West corner of the country. Although I have worked several stations in Germany on 4m over the years, I do not have many squares.

Then I went back and put out a call on 70.230. This produced SP2JYR in JO92 square, 1387km. I had worked JYR in the same shower a year ago, so that was nice symmetry.

Returning to 70.173 for a further blast, I heard DM2HBG calling CQ. There then followed a quick exchange. You can see one of the strong echos from the meteor.
DM2BHG is over in JO51, another new 4m square for me. This one is in the old East Germany, an area of the Harz which I have visited. Beautiful part of the world. Only 967km, and really strong signals. Done in a trice.

So there were four QSOs well spaced out in Europe, and all good, easy to work, stuff. 4m meteor scatter certainly seems easier to work than 2m but there are very few stations. Whilst 6m MS is probably easiest to master, I feel that I do not have the power or the antenna to do well at it. I did try a few CQs on 6m, but got no replies to my 30 watts.

All five stations, plus GU8FBO, then went on to work various permutations of a QSO party. It shows that the meteor peak is not necessarily at 07:00, and there was still activity after 13:00.

Two new squares. So that is what I won. What did I lose? Well, maybe both a square and a country.

I mentioned before that I worked Janne on 4 metres as LY/OH5LID on 30 April. Not only was Lithuania a new country for me, but also KO15 was a new square. Shortly afterwards, someone posted on the cluster that the Lithuanian licence only allows CW and SSB, not data modes. Janne did not work anyone after that and he turned up the next day in Estonia - I could not hear him from Estonia. I have no idea whether this is true - certainly the bandwidths permitted in Lithuania are specifically for CW and SSB.

When is a data mode SSB? Well, they way many of them are generated is by passing audio tones into an SSB transceiver. So you could argue that FSK, for instance, is SSB. I am not aware that SSB modulated by computer tones is in any way less "true" SSB than SSB modulated by human voice tones.

However, it may be that the Lithuanian authorities do not want data modes used. I have no idea if the licence conditions state this specifically. Data modes certainly sound different from SSB, and the repetitive tx cycles might cause a problem. There is no reason why data operators would not listen between overs in the same way as voice ones, but it just seems to look that way. With Lithuania bordering countries which use 70MHz for broadcasting (Russian Kaliningradsk and Belarus), then maybe they need to keep things low key.

Until this becomes clear I think that I may have worked a new country and square using a mode which is not licenced in that territory. Which surely makes the contact invalid. But how many other contacts in my book were also illegal under their own rules. I feel that at least one other one is doubtful, but how am I expected to know the rules in other states? I do not know the Lithuanian ones.

For now I am still counting my contact with Janne in my list. It is a personal list and I have not applied for any awards.  I feel sure that I will work Lithuania again some day. I have seen another Lithuanian station listed on the cluster (using data modes!!!). So it will work out in the long run. But it is an interesting issue.

Oh yes. Did I mention that I have not worked any Sporadic E this season yet?


Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Sporadic E weather and Flex AGC-T

I am a sceptic.

That does not mean that I do not believe things. It means that I need proof to convince me.

This is my third attempt to write on this topic. The other two have been deleted. You see, it is something I am confused about and cannot decide how to approach it.

There a theory that Sporadic E patterns are directly related to the weather.

There are a couple of snags with this. First of all the weather here has not got much to do with the weather 1000km away, which is where I am reflecting and refracting my signals off the ionised part of the E layer. And, that ionised layer is 100km up, whereas the weather as we know it is tropospheric, i.e. 14km up max.

The theory goes (and I saw this reported as "news" two days ago) about a "correlation" between the "Jet Stream" and Es propagation. Well, a "correlation" does not establish cause and effect. OK, the weather patterns and Es patterns might be related, but maybe because they share similar root causes, or happen at the same time of year.

The "Jet Stream" is a high (7 to 12km up around Europe), long distance (up to 4000km long), high speed (up to 400kmh) wind system which has a major influence on European and other weather. The Jet Stream certainly affects the weather here, but does it affect the pattern of Es? What is the mechanism for this? And what do they mean when they say there is a good "correlation" between weather systems and Es patterns.

There is a good correlation between putting fuel in my car's tank and it working, but there are a lot of other factors at work, like the engine, every single moving component, me, the road surface and a host of other factors including the weather.

There have been all sorts of theories about weather effects and Sporadic E. Like lightening, which has been put forward but never proved. I used to read about storms over the Alps "causing" Sporadic E. As somebody pointed out, the very good Es path between me and the Canary Islands, Madeira and the Azores does not really pass over the Alps. There are plenty of good Es paths which do not involve mountains or storms.

Then the inconvenient fact that lightening is limited to under 20kms in height and Es is at 100km is also generally ignored. Then you see people talking about red sprites and blue jets, not to mention elves and TIPPS, all of which sound like something out of a Harry Potter book. They are counterparts to lightening, which rise up, but sadly not as far as 100km.

This is the best comment I have seen, which is from a very useful paper (worth a read) by Michael Hawk, which you download here is:-
No studies intending to link thunderstorms to sporadic-E have resulted in conclusive data. For
years, the scientific community doubted any possible relation, given the simple fact that
thunderstorms occur in the troposphere (0-14 km altitude), and Es occurs at 100 km. In between
the troposphere and the ionosphere’s E region exist invisible barriers where the medium of the
atmosphere radically changes. These transition zones, named the tropopause and stratopause,
prevent certain interactions between layers from occurring due to the change atomic content,
wind, temperature, and other attributes.

This would apply to most weather effects.

However, "weather" must be a factor of some sort. The widely understood explanation of Es is that the ionised particles are held by the Earth's magnetic field. Below this layer are particles of non-ionised air, which is subject to "weather" and therefore moves about, unlike the ions which are more or less fixed by the magnetic field. However, the weather at 100km is not like the weather down here on Earth. For a start the air is incredibly rare, so thin that it can stay ionised as a plasma, and thus create Es.

The clash of the moving air and the more rigid ionised plasma above it causes a "shear" effect which not only organises the layer, but concentrates the ions in the layer. Fair enough. But to link this to the Jet Stream acting 80km lower is a big step.

Yes, years ago I spent a long time trying to prove a correlation between weather patterns and Es myself, and it is hard to prove. The random nature of amateur activity makes comparisons hard to do. But there does seem to be something in it. I want to believe it but I cannot find any convincing proof. So, to make statement as if it was proved to be a major factor is going too far for me.

Maybe the correlation is for other reasons. Maybe storms over the Alps and Es are caused by the same cause (a link has recently been found between solar wind speeds/ auroras and thunderstorms, for example, though this is a different process). Maybe these are just coincidences - because weather in Spring is variable and so are Sporadic E formations.

I believe in Father Christmas, but I cannot prove he exists. Sometimes, it is acceptable just to believe in something because you see the signs and it would be nice to accept it. More likely in this case there is some common shared factor, or multi-factorial system, linking all this. But in the absence of proof of either, I find Father Christmas more likely to exist than the weather theory of Es.

It would be nice to look out the window, see the rain storm which we are now having, and say "Well, that is why I have not worked any Es on 6m this season". But that goes too far for me.

Perhaps weather is a bigger factor than we know. But let us not start claiming it is proved that it is cause and effect. Weather theorists, we love you, but lets see the proof rather than just patterns of similarity.

In the meantime, I believe that some opposite of Father Christmas, some ghostly sprite, is holding up Sporadic E this year.

Now, what about Flex AGC-T? I said recently that I have been having trouble with high speed WSJT modes not decoding using the Flex and Power SDR. It seemed to be related to the AGC-T setting.

AGC-T is a very enigmatic control.

Gianfranco, IU1DZZ, said something on the WSPR chat site which got me thinking. He had his set to 120, whereas I was having problems at 90. Gianfranco is using a slow speed WSJT program (WSPR) most of the time, though he has said he uses JT6M and others sometimes. Anyway, he said that the setting he uses is good for weak signals but not so good for strong ones. Or at least, that was what I think he said.

If AGC-T does work like that then it is sensible to treat it like a normal AGC. A normal IF AGC can work non-linearly if noise is high and/or signals strong. That is why we can adjust it. But AGC-T seems to work in some other way. I have tried setting it as low as 50, and I could copy a weak meteor scatter signal well, while at the same time it seemed to wipe out a strong signal entirely. With normal AGC, they would both be reduced by similar amounts, though the noise floor would tend to make the sound appear more equal. So this seems to work in a similar but different way.

With an IF AGC you are trying to prevent the IF stages being overdriven, but an SSDR like the Flex does not work that way. What I was seeing before was noise overdriving the VAC, apparently at (digital) audio stages. Also, it does not respond to changes in the level as I would expect - in other word it "maxes out" the VACs long before it reaches the default value of 90.

I do not understand it, and in most modes it works just fine. But the sudden loud signals on meteor scatter, and the long periods of white noise around them, seem to fox it in some way.

More testing needed... always.



Sunday, 3 May 2015

Fault finding gets into my head.

Fault finding gets into your head.

That was what I was going to say.

But Mrs FVM doesn't get fault finding. Maybe nobody else does. Maybe it is only me who chases round in circles for hours after things.

Not that I find fault with Mrs FVM. Not an exercise worth pursuing. Painful.

No, I mean when the washing machine breaks down I go through this process which she doesn't understand. She is used to me by now.

FVM: "What were you doing when it broke down?"
Mrs FVM: "Washing the clothes"
FVM: "No, what program was it on"
Mss FVM: "The one I use to wash the clothes"
FVM: "No, there are 8 programs, which one"
Mrs FVM "I dunno"
FVM (getting steamed up): "Well, was it a rinse or was it a wash?...  Had the water filled, ... had the pump emptied the remaining water, ... has the water jet thrown the powder into the drum, ... did the drum sound uneven, ... has the fuse blown, ... were the clothes all cold, ... are the room lights still on, ... does the paper shredder still work?
Mrs FVM: The paper shredder? I am trying to wash the clothes and they are all wet.
FVM: Why didn't you say that? You mean the spin cycle is not working?
Mrs FVM: I dunno. Just fix it.

This is married bliss.

By the way the paper shredder is in the same room as the washing machine and shares the same circuit breaker, though they are separately fused. I did not try to explain, though it makes me look like a screwball to have mentioned it.

You see, it was a mistake to ever talk about the paper shredder. To a fault finder it makes sense, but to the rest of the world I seem to have taken leave of my senses, Which is possible. I spend most of my days under the bench with a torch, plugging in and out USB plugs. So much, that I plan to install mains lighting UNDER my desk.

I just cannot help it. If I cannot find a fault I imagine one. I built a diplexer to separate the signal from a dual 50MHz/70MHz antenna into two rigs. It is a vast thing, about four metres by three meters and it lives in the loft above the house. It works by stub co-ax filters so it has to be big. I tested it before applying RF to both ends at the same time. But this nagging doubt arose ... does it attenuate the signal too much. How much is too much - no time to ask, just find out.

Every so often, I ran co-ax up to the roof and ran myself down to the rig. An arrangement of rigs and co-ax switches was not much help as you really need to test it in situ. So I ran up and down the ladder instead. I tested it on the Carrickfergus beacon in GI - 263 km over a tricky path. Is it stronger this way or that way? With the diplexer or not?

I never got a proper answer. The beacon is too variable in strength to know anyway, and the loss would be tiny. This is not fault finding. There is no evidence that there ever was a fault. But I want to find one if there is one. AND NAIL IT FOR GOOD.

Hard to do if it isn't there.

This is more like "fault-causing", and I am good at that too.

So I stopped using the diplexer, just in case.

Even real faults, like computer generated noise due to poor USB connections, are given the same treatment. Have to find them even though they are tiny.

Today it is the regular issue of the USB sockets. The present shack computer is a 4 core AMD processor built into a mini-ATX box. So there are only a few slots for multi-socket USB boards. Outboard USB boards seem to make a lot of noise to be picked up on the rigs.

This PC is on an ASUS board. I have a much better 8 core one on a Gigabite board, but it is full ATX size and does not fit under the bench !!!. The ASUS board USB sockets are so noisy I cannot use them and I have 8 USB3 sockets on plug-in slots on the PC, and an outboard USB3 board to make up the numbers. They are ALL used. I cannot put any more plug-in USBs onto the PC (I've tried !!!) because I need to use a slot for a Sound Blaster audio card to make nice pure WSPR.

So stand by for a messy photo. This is my subsidiary PC display ..
Left to right along the bottom:
WSJT10 on meteor scatter duty on 70.230 (lots of garbage)
WSPR on 6m from the Flex (Power SDR above)
WSPR on 10m from FT-817.
At the top is Spec JT for 4m WSJT10.

And on that Spec JT are two thin lines. Arrrggghhh. USB QRM. Find it Jim.

FIND IT. There are only 11 permutations of USB sockets, two video boards, and a host of devices which might be to blame. Printer, scanner, wi-fi, three rigs, 5 power supplies, 4 fans plus the PC itself. Then there is the work computer, screen, DVD drives, DVD duplicator, ... Easy?

Digging about under the desk I feel pain - the cat has come in and is scratching the top of my bald head, demanding food, just as I try to jiggle the leads and all those ferrites (there are dozens of both). Fault finding is really getting into my head now. I am on my hands and knees and there is no point trying to shoo her away. Easier to go and feed her than have my head ploughed.

Back again in the dark - it is almost all coming from the Flex 1500 USB lead. Bah! Out of my filters drawer comes a REALLY BIG TDK ferrite filter which makes very little difference. Turn the Flex on and off to test a bit more (hence the noise bars on the 6m WSPR). Bah, Cannot stop it.

This was not here yesterday. What have I done? Oh yes, I unplugged all the USBs to stop another noise and then plugged them all into different sockets. Which stopped that noise, but  ...

And so it goes on. Plug in USB, unplug USB. Chase the noise. Find the fault. Get it stopped.

Not this time.

At what age do slightly overweight men with Celtic genes die of heart attacks?

Really, as young as that?




Friday, 1 May 2015

Sunspots decline, new country worked on 4m, more Es heard.

I have been busy with various things but I found time this morning to turn on the rigs and capture an interesting spell on 10m.
2015-05-01 09:22  VK6XT  28.126014  -22  0  OF86td  +37  5.012  GM4FVM  IO85wu  14880  9246 
 2015-05-01 09:16  VK2KRR  28.126043  -27  0  QF34mr  +40  10.000  GM4FVM  IO85wu  16748  10407 
 2015-05-01 09:14  VK6XT  28.126013  -23  0  OF86td  +37  5.012  GM4FVM  IO85wu  14880  9246 
 2015-05-01 09:06  VK6XT  28.126011  -15  0  OF86td  +37  5.012  GM4FVM  IO85wu  14880  9246 
 2015-05-01 09:00  VK6XT  28.126011  -12  0  OF86td  +37  5.012  GM4FVM  IO85wu  14880  9246 
 2015-05-01 08:58  VK2KRR  28.126041  -19  0  QF34mr  +40  10.000  GM4FVM  IO85wu  16748  10407 
 2015-05-01 08:54  VK6XT  28.126011  -11  0  OF86td  +37  5.012  GM4FVM  IO85wu  14880  9246 
 2015-05-01 08:46  VK6XT  28.126009  -7  0  OF86td  +37  5.012  GM4FVM  IO85wu  14880  9246 
 2015-05-01 08:44  GM4FVM  28.126090  -19  0  IO85wu  +27  0.501  VK6XT  OF86td  14880  9246 
 2015-05-01 08:40  VK2KRR  28.126038  -21  0  QF34mr  +40  10.000  GM4FVM  IO85wu  16748  10407 
 2015-05-01 08:38  VK6XT  28.126008  -11  0  OF86td  +37  5.012  GM4FVM  IO85wu  14880  9246 
 2015-05-01 08:36  VK5MR  28.126078  -23  0  PF96lh  +37  5.012  GM4FVM  IO85wu  16160  10041 
 2015-05-01 08:32  GM4FVM  28.126093  -16  -1  IO85wu  +27  0.501  VK6XT  OF86td  14880  9246 

I had to turn off as I needed to go out.

That was a sign of health on the 10m band. However, the solar Flux index has fallen to 104. SFI is a measurable figure based to solar noise, which in turn is a good measure of sunspot activity (and therefore sun activity in general). Somewhere about 100 on the SFI is my break-even point. Below 100 SFI and 10m starts to be closed for most of the day. Of course, Summer Sporadic Es continues, but F-layer dx tends to be absent. I am please of course to get 2way to VK, but hope of ploughing on and getting lots of 10m dx seem to be fading.

Not that we can write off the Sun. We just don't know what is happening, and we never really did. After a few increasing 11-year solar cycles, people were predicting a great cycle this time. Looking back now, the evidence was there to suggest that we are in a downward trend. This has been a disappointing cycle. almost no 6m F-layer openings. Traditional cycle-toppings paths into the Pacific on 10m just never appeared this time.

I am 60 years old this year. The good side is that I will get my free bus pass (or I will unless somebody abolishes it). The not-so-good side is that I may not have too many 11-year cycles left in me. And they come in pairs (actually 22-year cycles with half positive polarity and the other half negative). Most predictions suggest that the next 11-year peak will be the pair of this one - i.e. just as bad and the next one could worse.

I am not complaining and I am preparing for what is to come. I might even take up 40 metres!

For now I have learned something interesting (for me anyway) in this solar cycle. I have never seen one so poor (quiet) of course. But I thought that lower solar activity might mean fewer less powerful sun spots. But actually the sunspots have been just as powerful, there have just been fewer of them. So the effect of the St Patrick's Day aurora was a good as any other, but we just have not had so many events.

The interesting aspect of this is that we could yet have some very powerful solar mass ejections. As there are fewer spots, the chance of any one of them being directed right at us is lower. But if it is directed at us, it could be blistering. OK, probability says this is less likely than during a really powerful solar cycle. But you cannot rule it out.

You might say, the chances of tossing a coin and getting a head is always the same. And if you toss the coin less often, there will be fewer heads and fewer tails. But still the probablility of any coin coming up heads never changes. The chance of any one these solar events being a satellite-melting, aurora smashing, black-out creating, computer blasting, power system destroying, monster is not smaller. It WILL happen someday. It could be tomorrow.

But it probably will not be tomorrow.

I am still uncertain about the Flex and data modes. I did work OK2BRD on 28 April, but I am not convinced. So when I saw that LY/OH5LID was operating from Lithuania on 4 metres I decided to listen on the Flex. Nothing. I felt more confident on the IC-7100. Connected that and right away I heard Janne and the WSJT software decoded him calling CQ from KO15 square.

Within a minute of me sending a report to him he came back with my report and correct callsign. I went straight back with RRRR and then after a few minutes the software crashed. It looked to me on restart that I had got an RRR from him. I did not need it anyway. The QSO was complete from my end once he returned of my callsign and report (which I got twice). I am not sure if he got my RRRs due to the crash. So that is a new country (Lithuania) on 4 metres (just another one to reach my target for this year). And a new square too  - number 138 on that band. 4 more squares for this year's target. I suspect that Janne will appear from some other squares, which might mean I could wrap most of it up by his dxpedition alone.

Some funny propagation. I heard S57AC and I2PJA (yesterday) on 6m and while they were strong, they could not hear me. And I heard the F6IKT beacon on 50.079. Still have not WORKED anyone on Es this season. And I was calling CQ towards Germany on meteor scatter this morning when someone came back to me on SSB. Nothing wrong with that, except it took me about 5 minutes to press all the buttons and get back to him. By that time he had found a local to work and then he faded out. My fault. I thought it was DL9YEB but it looks like it was DL9YE. Still, he was 5/9+++ and to add to my woes, as he faded, there were lots of meteor pings on his signal. I am just missing Es QSOs this season. So far ...