Monday, 23 March 2020

On why I both love and hate ON4KST chat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I enjoy other aspects of it too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Monday, 16 March 2020

Farewell, FT-817 and accessories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I certainly will not be buying an FT-818.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

73 and keep washing your hands.

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

Saturday, 7 March 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can find it here :

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, where was I?

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks Olli.

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