Tuesday, 31 December 2019

The closing days of 2019 and what a year it was???

Before reviewing the year in general, it is worth considering the last few days of it in more detail.

That strange phenomenon "Winter Es" made an appearance on 28 December. I first noticed that S52OR was coming in consistently on the 4m meteor scatter frequency. Unlike the usual pings, he was there for the full 15 seconds. I quickly went onto FT8 on 4m and 6m. There seemed to be some action on 2m, but not here at GM4FVM.
VHF contacts at GM4FVM on 28 December 2019
This is my activity map for 28 December (click to enlarge the images if you need to, as usual). The two UK stations were on 2m, the others on 4m and 6m. 15 QSOs in 7 DXCC, bringing a total of 12 squares. ODX was SP8ALT in KO11GG at 1697km. The Winter Es opening lasted 61 minutes here. I suppose in the great scheme of things that is not much of an opening, but it brought a bit of hope to a very quiet scene.

The thing about Winter Es is that you never know if it will happen on any specific day. It keeps you on your toes. I missed out on the 2m part. Grrr.

Another dramatic opening was the tropo event on 29 and 30 December, affecting 4m, 2m and 70cms. Except that from a GM4FVM point of view it hardly happened at all.
15 minutes of 70cms FT8 activity on PSK Reporter on the evening of 29 December.
You may notice from this chart that the event missed my part of Scotland entirely. The lonely pin over GM4FVM is just my alter ego, GM8JWG's short wave listener's posting. GM8JWG hearing GM4FVM does not really count as DX as they are both located in the same building.

The other remarkable thing about that slice of activity is that it is on 70cms. I thrash away on 70cms FT8 all year, and mostly it is a pointless exercise. There are contacts to be made, but nobody there to make them with. This clearly shows that many people have the ability to work on 70cms, but most don't do it.
The Hepburn tropo predictor shows the centre of the tropo over the Atlantic with sideshoots over Southern England and France. Although predicted to make a glancing blow over Southern Scotland we saw next to none of it.

All was not lost though, and in a brief opening I did work some DX on 29th.
Stations worked at GM4FVM on 144 and 432 MHz on 29 December 2019
PA7MM and G8SEI were on 70cms, the others on 2m. As things go, that would be a good haul for me, but this was a day when stations on Central England were working Poland and the Canary Islands on 2m. A lucky few in the Southern parts of Ireland and England were hearing Capo Verde.

Still I cannot complain, in just 11 hours and 22 minutes I worked 6 stations in 5 squares and 4 DXCC. ODX was the ever reliable Charly DF5VAE on 2m, JO46RK at 1001km.

I spent quite some time trying to reach Fidel from Castro, EA1HRR, to see if I could reach a new DXCC on 70cms. Fidel has given me 6m, 4m and my first EA on 2m, so it would have been fitting for him to be my first EA on 70cms. No sir. He could work stations in G-land but not me, sadly. 

The conditions continued on 30 December with G stations reaching all over Europe and I was on duty all day to work GW6TEO and GM4VVX. Both of those contacts were a real struggle but at 505km, GW6TEO probably had the choice of many more exotic stations to work than me.

I have been in touch by email with an amateur in the thick of it in IO82 square. He described to me the excitement of being in the middle of a huge opening. I am genuinely pleased for him. There is learning in this for me too. I have never been just beyond the edge of an opening before. Or, I probably have, but before PSK Reporter and DX Maps I never really knew what I was missing.

In the past I have described the odd feeling that during a DX tropo opening the "normal" tropo stations disappear. When I can work Poland or France the G stations in between seem to vanish. Well now I know what that feels like to disappear like that. While the G stations were working EA8 and SP, they vanished for me. The net result was that I could not hear the EA8s or SPs, nor could I hear anyone else. For hours on end I could hear nobody at all, on 2m or 70cms. Even if their beams are turned away from me, I can usually hear G stations off the back of their antennas. Not this time.

Enough whingeing. Sometimes you win some, sometimes you lose some. This time I lost. I will feel sorry for those just outside the tropo bubble next time I find myself inside it working tons of DX.

I will so.

I will share their pain even as I am living The High Life, and Living It Well (sorry, 1994 Scottish TV comedy series reference).

Honestly. I will share their agony.

I will.

Because they will be doing that for me right now.
It has been a busy year OK.

Apart entirely from the radio, the three cycling Grand Tours were all brilliant, and the even the cricket World Cup was interesting. No, maybe interesting is the wrong word for cricket, people usually say "absorbing" instead.

Plus by train I made it to Wuppertal with its strange upside-down wobbly monorail, and even to the 2000 year-old Roman amphitheatre in Nimes
Nimes: an ancient monument (and an old Roman building on the right too)
On the radio front there was the arrival of quite a lot of gear left to me by David GM4JJJ. Possessions are just that, and I would rather have had David still with us, but that was not to be. Excellent equipment it has proved to be too.

As for operations, the picture is of some things at FVM being the same, and some very different. The DXCC table of countries worked shows this:-
GM4FVM DXCC table extracted from Clublog
10m varies depending on whether I am using WSPR as normal, or sometimes FT8 which count as QSOs. The big drop in 6m DXCCx worked in 2019 is due to me only having a half wave vertical up, and trouble with my linear. When did I not have linear trouble? In 2018 it seems, but I must have been having trouble with a different linear then.

4m, 2m and 70cms are much as before, but 23cms is a new entry. I do not expect 23cms to provide much action in the next year but I am willing to be surprised. There is something to get sorted for 2020 - some more power on 23cms.

Also on the way is the return of a 6m beam. The new beam is past the design stage and it is now in the cutting metal phase. We shall see how that works in due course.

So an interesting year. Meteor scatter has not been very good. The Geminids in December seemed to be pretty poor. I am placing my hopes on the Quadrantids (or Bootids), this time due to peak on 3 to 4 January 2020. That leaves the meteor scatter diary free until April, but I shall strive for random contacts during the lull in showers.

The tropo opening of 29 and 30 December seems to be rumbling on still. There are suggestions that the barometric systems will continue to circulate nearby for about a week. As usual the Scottish weather is pretty variable and we need to see how this turns out.  It seems it was also affecting UK "Freeview" television signals in the 470 - 700MHz range, something that we do not see too often.

What does the future hold for this part of the world? Well, I received a parcel by Royal Mail today from Uxbridge near London. On the back was a UK customs declaration. Has Scotland already left the UK and nobody told me? Is this the present or is this for the future? Do I need a new callsign? No comment necessary or welcome on that debate, let us stick to radio here.

Ah well, the future will reveal itself when it is ready.

Have a merry Hogmanay and a great New Year.

Best wishes from GM4FVM

Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Moving forward with a plan... ?

We do not know what is around the next corner. Perhaps it is just as well.

I could worry about everything, or I could make some plans to move forward.

I guess I will do both. Anyway, the overall outcome will be the same - entropy and decay will win the argument in the long term.

When I was a part-time student long ago I went to evening lectures at the university for 8 years. Sometimes after a long day at work I fell asleep in the lectures. I left a long pen mark across my notes when that happened. I still managed to get qualified, but I am not sure how.

I have forgotten most of it. I do remember the economics lecturer telling us that the ideal savings profile across a lifetime is to start at zero and end at zero. We should have savings, in case of problems. But we arrive in this life with nothing, and we will leave with nothing. He could not see much point saving to build up money to leave to future generations. So he reckoned we should organise our lives to have no savings left at the point of death. He said that the issue for the later years of life should be about spending savings, not adding to them.

Maybe he was right. We do not know when our key will fall silent, so why keep a large sum to be left at that time? OK, save some, but spend a little now too, before it is too late.

Well, that is my story anyway. A reason not to sit and worry and a reason to spend a little now to make life more pleasurable.

For some that means changing a perfectly good radio for an £8000 one on which to work the same stations. Not for me. Time to expand the 1296MHz set-up, and time to get the antennas better organised in the hope of working something new.

So it is that I find I need more storage. My linears are perched on top of my shelving - not good. Where can I fit in a new linear?

I have been busy obtaining more shelving. Not your cheap and tatty stuff, but from a high-end supplier called Ikea. All hand made (hand made in the hall outside the shack and carried in). And another free little quad-key screw driver to add to my collection, courtesy of Ikea.

And not just Ikea, but Ikea's kids range. After all, amateur radio is child's play. I already have 4 sets of their children's range "Trofast", an adjustable sets of boxes meant for toys and therefore holding my toys. Or my components, plugs and sockets.  But now Trofast has a fancy option, finished in white rather than plain wood finish. The other wood finished stuff is hidden away in cupboards, but the new white one can go on view in the shack. Wow! Premium quality.
Ikea Children's Trofast storage unit in white at GM4FVM
If this looks a bit odd, there is only one of them. It looks like two, but the cupboard on the left which contains the older Trofasts has mirror sliding doors. The previous owner of this house used this room as her bedroom, and she had one entire wall covered in MirrorRobes. It has never been clear to me why she wanted to cover an entire bedroom wall in mirrors, but there you go (Jim, really). When we made the room smaller it made sense to keep the cupboard doors, so one side of my shack is mirrors. Now I can watch myself operate. How strange. Why would I want to do that?

But enough of all this. Also left over by the previous owner of this house is the television shelf above the new unit. This was screwed to the wall, and I left it. Now it has my 70cm TE Systems linear amplifier on it. Also there is the temperature controlled fan unit for the linear, the 70cms sequencer and a bias-tee. The Trofast fits below and the 23cms linear will go in there, along with another sequencer and bias-tee. Then there will be the power supplies lower down.

There is also a box in the Trofast for all those cables I never quite know where to store. The ones I need at short notice, but not very often. Patch leads, for example. I discovered that if I put the box at the top of the unit I could save a shelf. I am getting very organised.

This is the point here. I have actually given some thought to where to put something, before the something arrived. It helps that my economics lecturer from 40 years ago gave me authority to spend my savings on this unit. But it is necessary, and is a good way to spend not very much money. The basic frame is £30, and the shelves and boxes are extra.

Come to think of it, he would have called this investment, so it is even more easily justifiable.

The 23cms linear is under construction but I am not sure when it will be ready.

Another investment of my savings is in an experimental antenna for 4m and 6m. I have two perfectly good PowAbeams for 4m and 6m, but that is the problem. There are two of them. For the winter I have put up my old Vine 4m/6m dual bander which is better then as it is only a single antenna, but not very good as it has a single feed. Single feed does not suit my multi-band operating method. And anyway, I like my antennas to be connected to my rigs by co-ax.

The Vine uses the sleeve method of driving the 4m beam. Call me old fashioned, but I prefer a bit of wire to my antennas. Erm, well the sleeve method is old fashioned too, but ... right, ... when I think about it, I have no good reason for not liking the sleeve method, but I just don't like it.

To get round my issues with single feed in the past I built a diplexer for the Vine, which meant that I could use 4m and 6m simultaneously. I was never happy with that either. At this point in my life I reckon it is time to be a bit happier.

Rig - coax - antenna, that is my preferred route.

So I am also gambling a bit of my savings on having an experimental calculation done for a 3/4 element dual band antenna for 6 and 4 metres. This would have two separate feeds and work as separate beams on a single boom. All the commercial ones of my size  (3m boom max) are single feed and have all the same issues as the Vine. My idea is being modelled now so we will see if it works without sacrificing too much.

So there is actually a bit of planning going on here. Life planning, to free up some savings. Room planning, to make some space. And antenna planning, to model something a wee bit different and hopefully more efficient.

Funny, I am not noted for planning.


Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Just a bit of fun

I think this hobby should be fun. It should not be all about understanding Faraday Rotation or precision frequency measurement. Sometimes we should just leave the work to one side and do something for ourselves.

The thing I left aside is a posting on this blog about how to tell the difference between the various VHF propagation methods. Stirring stuff. Like many of my postings it is far too long, too wordy, too ... too much like hard work really. They must be a right pain to read.

For a few days the barometric pressure has been rising as an anticyclone passes across Britain roughly from North West to South East.
There was a weather system across Scotland which was likely to spoil things a bit, but for about 5 days the Hepburn Tropo Predictions (see link on sidebar) have been suggesting that yesterday, Tuesday 3 December 2019, would be the day when VHF and UHF conditions might improve.

So I set Tuesday 3 December 2019 aside as a day to work a few stations and see how I got on.

I really enjoyed it. Good fun.

The significance of Tuesday is that it is the "Activity Contest" day in Europe. Well, it was, until we started having 6m and 4m activity days on Thursdays, which is a good idea but does make it all more complex. This was done because, despite the constant nagging from contesters, the national radio societies were unable to fit six Tuesdays into every month. Those national societies - what good are they if they cannot regulate the number of Tuesdays in the month.

First Tuesday in the month is 2m activity contest day. Now, as is well known, I do not enter contests but I do give away points. So the plan for this Tuesday was to operate as much DX as I could if conditions were good during the day, and then help out in the contest for even more DX during contest hours.

The RSGB National Activity contests run from 20:00 to 22:30 UTC for all modes, with earlier contests from 19:00 to 19:55 for FM and data modes. However, as conditions were looking up, I decided to switch to my favourite contest, the Nordic Activity Contest (NAC), which runs from 18:00 to 22:00 UTC on Wintertime Tuesdays (switching by an hour during daylight saving time).

For this contest I decided to stick to FT8. As many of the NAC stations use FT8 in its European contest mode I can get a useful updated conest log on WSJT-X which saves me trouble checking for those stations I have already worked.
Contest log with WSJT-X in the "EU VHF Contest Special Operating Activity" mode
Interestingly the latest entry in the log is at the top numbered one, whereas the serial numbers (which I have not managed to capture in the above screen grab) go the other way.

The signal reports used in the European contest mode are "59" type RS strength reports with a serial number, rather than the conventional FT8 "dB S/N relative to the noise in the SSB filter" type reports. If presented with a Euro contest type report WSJT-X will switch over to that style until you dive into the settings and turn it off. Using two different styles of report in two contests running at the same time causes endless confusion to those in the RSGB data contests which do not use serial numbers or the Euro contest system. It all adds to the fun. 

I like the NAC because of its informality. It also helps that the stations involved are usually at a handy distance if conditions are good. Often I can use meteor scatter, but perhaps this time tropo would be good as the high pressure seemed to be perfectly placed. Tropo openings are often best just as the high pressure is subsiding, which it obligingly did.

As usual, click on the images if you wish to enlarge them.
Stations worked at GM4FVM on 144MHZ on 3 December 2019

As the NAC on the first Tuesday of the month is for 2m I did concentrate on that band, but I did some 70cms too. You don't need a contest to make UHF DX interesting, but sometimes it helps.
Stations worked at GM4FVM on 432MHz on 3 December 2019
Before the NAC began I worked 18 stations. On 144MHz it was 14 stations in 8 DXCC, on 432MHz it was 4 stations in 2 DXCC. I only worked France on 432MHz (twice), the others on 144MHz being G, GM, GW, GI, OZ, PA, DL and ON. ON4POO kicked the whole thing off, as he so often does. The two stations in France were F5APQ and F4HRD both in JO00, which isn't bad on 70cms at about 600km from here. I bet I could have worked more stations on 70cms if there had been more around, and of course during the 2m contest the 70cms activity fell (but did not stop!).

During the NAC I worked 10 stations in OZ, LA, and SM of course, plus PA0O as yet another participant in NAC. I was only on for about 2 hours of the contest as I had to go and watch "Masterchef The Professionals" on the television. We have to keep it fun you know.

After the contest I worked 4 stations on 2m (SM and OZ) and then one on 70cms (OZ).

Grand total
For 2m, 30 QSOs over 13 hours and 18 minutes, 18 squares, 10 DXCC, ODX SM7EGM in JO65 at 988km, and
For 70cm, 5 QSOs over 12 hours and 4 minutes, 3 squares, 3 DXCC, ODX OZ2ND in JO46 at 690km.

I am not sure if 70cms contacts count double the distance but they should. Two other contacts that got away were both GI6ATZ, heard on 70cm and 23cms. Either would have been an interesting QSO, and on 23cms a new country for me. However, as the contest was underway I left him to it.

So, I did not enter another contest. I just did some operating. Including a contest is easy when you do not have the keep any records for your entry and it does not matter much if you slope off to watch the telly for a couple of hours.

There was nothing special about 3 December 2019. It was just a chance to work a bit of tropo with the activity level which comes with the contest.

Along the way I did nip outside and change over my 432MHz masthead preamp. I have done this several times over the past 6 months and I have honed the time down from an hour to just 27 minutes. It is getting like a Formula 1 pit stop. I need to work out what is happening. Perhaps that will not be so much fun as a day's operating.