Thursday, 17 January 2019

Good blogging and the data mode take-over (not)

I like a good blog. I enjoy reading the thoughts of somebody who cares about their hobby and shares their thoughts with us.

One I have mentioned before is Olli's, DH8BQA, here You can find a link to it on the right hand sidebar too.

Olli is very good at saying the right stuff. He is also direct and to the point, not like me who rambles. He posts occasionally, not too often as I do. He has interests in a mix of subjects from VHF to HF, which makes it interesting.. He does contesting, which I don't do. I find that interesting, and I even hope that Olli will do well in contests because he is "on my side" thanks to the blog. That way I can do contesting without actually doing the work.

We share enough interests to keep me looking at his blog from time to time. The shared interests extend to the 10m band, tropo on VHF and many other things.

Back in October Olli added an interesting coda to his posting about the conditions then His remarks have been spinning around in my head, and I have been waiting to sort them out before posting something myself. Here is what he said about FT8 ...

While I see it’s advantages and therefor use it, too, I really hope it will not be FT8-only in the future because people are just too lazy and make it easy by just clicking around a bit on the computer screen (if at all and not automating things, automated QSOs are just machine to machine, this has nothing to do with amateur radio anymore). As long as it is just complementary I’m fine with it. If it ever turns to FT8-only (yes, there are signs of it ðŸ™) I’ll certainly need to search for another hobby. And that’s from someone who is burning for our hobby … but let’s think positive.

I agree with Olli on this. I have given it a lot of thought over the months. I think my viewpoint on FT8 comes from someone who has been using data modes for several years. OK, I was using RTTY in the 1970s, but I do not mean that. PSK came afterwards and pretty well rendered RTTY obsolete (I am ignoring several other steps here).

When I really got into data modes, it was to do things which other modes could not do. That was:-
WSPR - low power propagation study
JT6 and FSK441 - meteor scatter
JT65 - moonbounce

Possibly because I have never trusted my morse code skills I turned to these data modes as a positive step to explore the potential of our hobby, not to replace SSB and FM.

It turned out that JT65 and JT9 were useful on 6m and 10m for fading long distance contacts, but that was a side issue. I never saw data modes taking over, and I hope they never do.

When MSK144 became available I stopped using JT6 and FSK because I found what Joe Taylor said was correct - MSK is better. When FT8 appeared I started using it instead of JT65 or JT9 on terrestrial stuff and now I keep JT65 for EME and beacons. Simple, I have not changed my methods other than updating the protocols as new ones come along.

Then recently I heard this mad howling from offended traditionalists. It turns out that they never noticed me on JT65 but now I am on FT8 I am a threat. Well, not me so much, but hoards of folk who think that HF = WSTJ-X = FT8 = data modes. NOT TRUE. WSJT-X is a resource of several protocols for various purposes, I have been using it since WSJT-X 1.3, and there has always been a lot more to it than one mode.

It turns out that newcomers are using FT8 in their droves, and this may or may not pose a threat to the world of amateur radio, or maybe the world in general. But how can I be part of that threat when I haven't changed? I have been using data for the majority of my contacts since 2010, so nothing new there.

So what is different is not that enthusiasts are using data modes for doing things that voice cannot do, but they are using it more widely - and getting further at the same time. And I can see the issue. When I tune to 80m or 40m the FT8 segments are totally overcrowded. There are signals everywhere, and most them seem to be doing exactly what can be done easily on voice modes. Of course, they are perfectly entitled to do that.

I say again, I agree with Olli. A fully FT8 world would would be terrible. I still use FM to talk to my pals, and I use SSB in contests. Sometimes I just use voice (because I want to). I find the mass use of FT8 on HF soul-less and rather pointless. Sure if I am in search of DX then FT8 offers advantages, but for QSOs round Europe on 40m? Even top band, that chat band par excellence, is full of signals relentlessly exchanging callsigns (is anyone home?). They would be better, in my view, changing over to WSPR and going to bed while leaving the rig on. If all you want to do is exchange callsigns you might as well give up.

I do WSPR and pour over the charts looking for patterns. I use FT8 on VHF probing the edge of the tropo or Es. But using FT8 just for local contacts? Come on! This hobby is supposed to be a challenge, or at the very least, an exchange of ideas. What personal growth can come from routine machine exchanges?

Am I saying that I am better than them, or that they should "do as I say, not what I do"? I do not think so. What I am saying is that I think a moon bounce QSO from here to North America, or one discovering winter Es on 6m, is more meaningful than 100 "Inter-G" data contacts on 80m. You can disagree with me if you wish, but I really cannot see the point of using a strict mode which limits your interaction in a general chat arena.

I bet this is fashion. Or at least I hope it is. I expect that a lot of people are just trying out FT8, and as they are only on 80m, then obviously FT8 is busy on 80m. I suspect that over time 80m FT8 will become the preserve of DXers and enthusiasts, and the bulk of the activity will move back to SSB or CW. If I was on 80m on a regular basis I bet I would have done the same. I do not blame FT8 for being popular, but I think that over time it will reach its own level (and mostly amongst the DX enthusiasts).

There are all sorts of doom-mongers around in this hobby. For example, they predict that digital voice modes and network radio are going to kill our hobby. To these people I say "nonsense". Our hobby has to be attractive to people, and if something else is more attractive then off they will go to those hobbies. We need to win them over, not blame them for making a logical choice. They said the same thing when VHF-only licences arrived in the 1960s. Then it was said that many people would go onto VHF and never bother "advancing" to HF licences. But I did. And today new entrants may well go into network radio, get a taste for communication, and see amateur radio as their next step. In the meantime, established amateurs are using network radio to support their needs, and attracting people over from there. Network radio can be the recruiting ground for amateur radio, just like CB was years ago.

Like those in the Navy, we in amateur radio are in "The Senior Service".

And, in my case, proud of it. Aye aye, Captain.

I think I have been moved to write this because a rather boisterous local told me that he had worked 500 stations on FT8, as if that required a medal or a certificate.We do not weigh our QSLs to see how many there are, we look at each one and judge its significance. One good QSO is better than a night full of clocking them off routinely on 80m. For me anyway.

I need a photo or the thumbnail of this post will look bare. Here is a photo of an IC-7100 with a nice new N-type socket added to the VHF side ...
... haven't we seen this before? No, because this is a second IC-7100. Do I need two IC-7100s? Probably not, but another one has appeared. Once it has proved that it works perfectly I may sell it on. It was in need of some TLC, new USB lead, firmware upgrades, and general tidying up. So far so good.

My FT-817 is seriously clunked. Its processor keeps locking up and while a reset brings it back, not for long. Unusually for me, the arrival of the second IC-7100 comes at the right time. The two things were not connected, but seem to fit together. Now, is the FT-817 worth fixing? The 7100 is vastly superior.

What does annoy me, still, is that the only place I can find an N-type panel socket with two holes is at Radioworld who charge £10 for them! Grrrr. I have plenty of 4-hole ones, but RS and eBay have none of the 2-hole ones. £10 for a socket. That is crazy.

D'oh. Am I ever likely to need another 2-hole N-type panel socket? No.

I said that the last time.




Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Never mind the Tropo, feel the Angst

I do feel amateur radio is a love/hate relationship for me.

Here I am off again. I said before that it is my "bad mistress" (not a good expression but it seems to fit).

I love it. There are lots of challenges and I am moderately good at some of it. But ...

I hate it. Things keep breaking down and I have to fix them. I have to. Or at least I have to try.

If there are no problems on the horizon, I invent some more problems. If I have a few minutes to think I will add a new mode, add a new band, try a new antenna. And each of these has the potential to be a new problem to solve.

That's it! For me, amateur radio is about finding problems to solve. If there are no problems, I invent some. I do not need to do any of it, it is a hobby. I do not earn a living at it. I could stop tomorrow. But if I gave up what would I do? Invent some new problem to solve. Standing still is not an option.

My Yaesu FT-817 decided to die on me. I do not have to run WSPR on HF, but I choose to. In the middle of everything else, it went potty, with a readout suggesting I was on broadcast frequencies with a locked radio. Various re-boots did nothing. Nor did a partial reset. Then a full reset and it is going again. I had to do all the settings again. What was that all about? No time ... got to deal with the 2m linear.

Oh dear. Is this a hobby or an obsession?

I am not a great admirer of the FT-817. Portability is its main plus. I would rather have something better for my HF activities, but then again I do not rate a bit of WSPR as something which justifies using a really nice bit of kit.

If I did not say all this it might look easy. All those maps of mine showing QSOs all over the place where VHF is not supposed to go. How does he do that with such ease, you ask? EASE! I am permanently flustered. I am in a constant campaign against entropy - the physical property of all things to revert to disorder. Entropy is about everything striving to reach the lowest energy level, which in radio terms means broken down and falling to pieces. My task, which I have chosen to accept, is to prove that VHF radio (and a bit more) can do brilliant things, but I admit it is hard work to stop everything constantly breaking down and reverting to chaos.

The problem of the moment is that everything appears to be falling apart at once. Including me.

Moving on ...

It has been a notable few days at GM4FVM from the radio point of view. As reported last time a high pressure system dropped anchor south of These Islands. This is rather unusual as long-lasting highs are more usually over the North Sea. So instead of the more typical openings from here into Netherlands and Germany, this time we had openings into France and Spain.
144MHz contacts at GM4FVM 3 to 8 January 2019
No chance to put the callsigns on that map because there are so many they overlap. I did however put on the 100km circles. I did manage many QSOs into France, all of which I regard as good going.

Best contact in France was F4EZJ in JN05, 1170km. That is near Angouleme which is a long way - I know because I drove there once and I remember vividly how long it took. I would be happy with that, were it not for two new countries as well and even further DX.

A new country on 144MHz was Spain. Somehow I have never worked Spain from here and I certainly did not expect to do it barefoot. It seems fitting that my first EA contact on 2m was with Fidel, EA1HRR (IN83, 1387km). I have worked Fidel many times on 4m and 6m, so he now joins the select group who have worked me on three bands. Fidel is always cheerful and enthusiastic on the air. I have also visited the Basque Country a couple of times and I do have some sort of affinity for it (but then that applies to most places I have visited). This may be a scientific hobby but there is some room for feeling in there somewhere.

I actually managed to work three Spanish stations during the lift. After one failed attempt I tried again the next day and finally worked EA4GMY in IN80 (1717km) near Madrid. I have never been to Madrid but I'll take that one, thanks. That counts as good 2m DX in my book.

There were repeated ducts during which stations between South West and South East from here were appearing and disappearing. Some stations in Northern France were audible for most of the three days the lift lasted. Stations in Netherlands and Germany could not be heard by me, but they seemed to working West into Wales and Ireland. I could see other GM stations in the Highland and Islands working far into South Western Europe, much further than me. If you happened to live outside the area covered you missed it completely. Such is amateur radio.

The other new 144MHz country was provided by a contact with Richard, GU8FBO (IN89, 714). That means Richard also joins the three band (50/70/144 MHz) club, and some other club I have not yet started for propagation modes (tropo/aurora/meteor scatter/Es). Maybe I need yet another for transmission mode which Richard could join (JT6M/SSB/MSK144/FT8). I am very clubbable. Or am I?

432MHz was also pretty good during this lift too...
432MHz contacts at GM4FVM 3 to 8 January 2019
France and Belgium on 70cms tropo! I think that is a great success from here. I also feel that 70cms could be a lot better if there were more stations active.

F6KBF in JN18 is 820km, good for 70cms from here. And my first QSO with G0MJI on any band was notable too.

Of course, all that still is not enough for me. I have still not managed to work the Netherlands on 70cms. Another place I have fond memories of visiting, and surely fairly easy to reach form here. Not during a southern facing lift. I need to find one of those old fashioned North Sea highs.

I am not easily pleased.

This period of enhanced propagation thanks to tropospheric conditions fell at about the same time as the Quadrantids meteor shower. That shower looked pretty good but I only have time for a few contacts such as these on 4m ...
70MHz contacts at GM4FVM 1 to 8 January 2019
I suppose that the tropo opening was distracting me, plus the absence for now of my 2m and 6m linear amplifiers. As I said last time, power is not everything on meteor scatter, and I was happy with these contacts on 70MHz.

So all in all a good period for DX. There may be a wee bit left in the High. At the moment a weather system is tracking down the North Sea, but we may have a day or two of high pressure left after that.

When it gets to the middle of January we reach "the end of the VHF season", meaning that high pressure are less frequent (round here anyway), and the meteor season goes into a lull until April. Sporadic E is more or less absent until May. Sure, there may be some moon bounce or aurora work to be done, but broadly it is time to polish up the antenna for next season. And what about fixing all those things that were bugging you?

On the cards for GM4FVM is a complete removal of the shack while the room is repainted. This is an opportunity to get the vacuum cleaner into nooks and crannies not often visited by cleaning apparatus. Time to check all the RF plugs, clean out the fans and put everything back in a different place than before. Whoop-de-doooh.

I will keep you posted on that exciting prospect.




Wednesday, 2 January 2019

The frailty of modern technology (and my ego)

Mrs FVM can certainly take a flattering photo
Katy and GM4FVM enjoying the Hogmanay celebrations.
Least said about that the better.

"Lose some weight you doughball" might be the least said then.

Moving on.

I feel that modern solid state power amplifiers are a weak point when it comes to being "brittle". They break easily. It is not surprising as we expect so much of them. We push them to their limits, we expect them to be sold a low prices and yet we also expect the highest level of reliability from them. They are generally made by the second-string producers, the big three having more or less backed out from this sector (maybe because of the reliability issues). So probably I can expect these things to have short lives and need regular repairs.

Or maybe I just break them.

Maybe I am careless with these fiddly devices. I could say that, but regular readers here know that I have had the same experience with good old solid reliable valve ones too.

Could it be my fault? Nay, surely not.

When my latest 2m linear arrived just 9 months ago and I placed the Microset SR-200 into reserve. I meant to fix it at some stage. Why did I not fix the Microset? I have just found, having a reserve that does not work is rather like not having a reserve at all.

Yes, to add to the list which already contains the 6m linear, my main Gemini 2m linear has also developed a fault. SWR trips when there is no SWR problem. As it is only 9 months old it has been packed off back to the maker and so I dug out the Microset. Surprisingly, having sat in the cupboard for 9 months it has not fixed itself.

Discussing it with John, G1VVU, he immediately suggested power starvation. Of course! Why did I not think of that. I am a chump. One of the DC supply leads looks the worse for wear. It turns out that is not the fault (John was just making a suggestion), but I certainly blamed myself for a basic error. Basic errors I can do well.

So what is the fault with the Microset? We don't know. Investigations continue. Perhaps I should put it back in the cupboard and see if another 9 months will help.

Leaning against the wall on the other side of the shack is the 6m linear. I should be fixing that too. But wait a minute, I decided to do without it for a while and working barefoot seemed OK on 6m. Why not just stick with barefoot on 2m for a while longer?

So, with 50 watts I venture onto 2m FT8 ...
144MHz FT8 contacts at GM4FVM 29 Dec 2018 to 2 Jan 2019
Well, maybe there was a bit of a lift on, but 50 watts of 144MHz seems to be OK really.

Click the images as usual if you need more detail.

I also wondered what 95 watts of FT8 on 70cms would do ...
432MHz FT8 contacts at GM4FVM 29 Dec 2018 to 2 Jan 2019
I am pleased with that. Working France on any VHF band is very good for me, but F6DBI (IN88) on 432MHz it is a bit special, and at 833km not bad on UHF in any sense. I worked the same station on 2m this week (three times actually), and I would have been happy with that. As it turned out, F8DBF (IN78 at 849km) and F6APE (IO97 at 949km) on 2m are not shabby either.

OK, I am making a meal of this. My linear amplifiers are really just here to get stations to turn their beams towards me. In almost every case, 50 watts is fine, and usually much less is enough. Living rather out of the usual line stations beam in, I find a bit more umph is handy to get them to turn their antennas and beam at me. I live in the south east corner of IO85 square, and that is not where most stations think Scotland belongs. If they are already pointing at me, barefoot is plenty.

Having no linear certainly rules out moon bounce on 2m - but I am still active on 70cms, and this past few days I have worked Germany (first time on EME) and Switzerland (first time on 70cms by any means). 95 watts - Phew! - QRO for now.

Yes I will get those linears back into action soon. In the meantime, I am very happy to go along with what I have.

Sometime I must tell you how 2 watts on HF is doing for me - rather well in fact.