Archive for February, 2010

hf, or why ham radio is not dead (part two)


You can spend thousands, even tens or hundreds of thousands on this hobby. Some call it a rich man’s game. I got into it more for the thrill of cobbling together circuitry for under $20 using scrounged electronics, Altoids tins and scrap wire. Nevertheless, the seduction of fine equipment is stong. In my irrational exuberance following receipt of my FCC license, I treated myself to what I thought was some reference-quality HF equipment – for reference purposes, of course – to help in the design, construction, testing and operation of the aforementioned Altoids tins crammed full of hand-wound coils and transistors stolen from abandoned TVs.

The expensive stuff never really worked. Well, at least not terribly well. I spent a lot of time learning the ins and outs of the mighty Yaesu FT-1000, even the features I never thought I’d use. I spent nights scanning the bands during the long lull between sunspot cycles 23 and 24, when the airwaves were practically dead from 160m all the way to 6m. Whether it was just the absence of sunspots, the antenna or the transceiver I’ll never be completely sure. At nine months old, the antenna – an MFJ 1798 multiband vertical – took wind damage and seemed to have given up its ghost. The transceiver may have been damaged at that point, too. I’m sure at one point I tried the automatic antenna tuner which, if activated without an antenna connected, would have certainly put the final hurts on the Yaesu. In any case the HF rig sat in disuse for about a year before I tired again in vain to receive any signal using a variety of antennas and finally realized its front end was shot.

Anticipating, however, that I would one day start riding the low HF bands again, I spent a rainy day picking through some bits I had been collecting over the months, components of wire antennas – insulators, romex wire, antenna rope, and a flagpole pulley, cleat and halyard – and whipped up a simple 80m dipole. I knew at some point I’d just break down and buy another HF transceiver, probably something portable to augment the heavy, base-station-only FT-1000.

At the Yuma hamfest I had spotted some interesting (and affordable) screwdriver antennas and asked the designer to demonstrate one. We went out after closing to the RV camping area, a few acres of mobile stations of all kinds bristling with roughly a bazillion antennas reaching for the zenith. He showed me how the antenna was mounted, how the motor controller was controlled by an aftermarket antenna tuner that was, in turn, controlled by his HF/VHF/UHF radio: an Icom IC-7000. I watched in amazement as that small antenna, just a few feet off the dirt, tuned itself to perfect 1.0-to-1 SWR on any frequency I could name – from 1.84 MHz all the way up to fifty-something. Granted, you had to tune it again every time you dialed in a new frequency, but the worst SWR I saw was about 1.2-to-1, which was far better than most anything I had ever used. I was sold. the next day I bought a complete copy of that rig: radio, antenna and tuner, plus some mounting brackets and adapters I needed to stock up on.

Back home, somewhat exhausted from absorbing so much new information all weekend, I crammed through the IC-7000 manual and did a smoke check on it with the 80m dipole – straight, no chaser, no tuner. I was blown away by all the signals I was hearing now, many of them on bands that this particular antenna shouldn’t even be receiving at all! Let the fun begin! I listened to everything from domestic and Mexican AM broadcasts to 80m, SW (Taiwan, Portugal, The Vatican, Cuba, etc,) and 40m, 20m, 17m…. With a CW contest in progress, every band seemed to be gushing waterfalls of Morse code. I was tempted to make a call out but decided to just go to bed, let the magic of a good night’s sleep do its work on my weary hippocampus, and take on the world the next morning.

The following day brought some landmark events. I made my first HF QSO with a station over 600 miles away (somewhat embarrassingly, this took place at a frequency my General Class license does not permit me to transmit on, which fact was gently and politely pointed out to me by the others,) and promptly checked in to two local ARES / RACES HF nets (with less-than-perfect signal reports, but who said the first time had to be perfect?) immediately afterward. Next was the big hurdle, the actual driving force behind my race to get back onto 80m: a MARS training net at 0100Z.

MARS (which stands for Military Auxiliary Radio System, a long-standing symbiosis between the various military branches and participating volunteer amateur radio stations) uses frequencies not regulated by the FCC; they are administrated by the Department of Defense. Your garden-variety amateur radio equipment is typically tx-blocked at these frequencies to prevent “accidents.” But acceptance into the MARS program, even as a trial member, costitutes permission to *legally* hack your radio to allow transmission on non-ham frequencies. You’ll just be dealing with Military Police instead of the FCC if you do a no-no.

I knew the out-of-band mod for the IC-7000 was fairly straightforward – removal or at least disconnection of a single diode. I quickly found the necessary info online and effected the tx-unlock with only a few cuss words and moments of head-scratching. Since calling for a radio check on military frequencies was something I wasn’t sure I was authorized to do, I’d have to wait until the training net began to know if I’d hit the sweet spot or not. To my great relief, everything worked fine. I checked into my first MARS net, was able to read all stations but could only be heard by a few. The protocol is quick and dry and business-only and not something I was yet used to, but I seem to have gotten through it OK.

So, four “firsts” for me in HF operation, all in one day. That ain’t bad. Oh, and I think the point I was trying to make was this: all of this was possible due to a hastily thrown-together, UN-tuned, UN-tweaked, simple wire antenna made of about $15 worth of parts.

hf, or why ham radio is not dead (part one)


Yuma Hamfest 2010, Yuma Fairgrounds: one by one, military aricraft make their landing descent just above our heads as we look up, perhaps with the same curiosity and bloodlust as NASCAR fans at once dreading and anticipating a deadly crash. Last year someone in military garb passed out leaflets at the hamfest, giving bogus orders to keep transmission power to 50 PEP or below on all frequencies. An exhibitor with one side of his family tree in the Marine Corps and the other in the FCC, told them politely, and quite rightfully so, to kiss off, unless this directive came from the FCC or a state of martial law had been declared. They seem to be punishing us as a group for last year’s transgression. Without fail, all day long, all weekend long, we must cover our ears every five minutes.

As soon as I reach the dirt parking lot of the fairgrounds, I recognize Hector’s Mexican call sign on California vanity plates, XE2K (while on American soil, he must sign as WT6J; the Mex call on US plates is a subtle irony.) I’m glad to see he’s here. Hector designs and installs antenna systems of all flavors for a living – data, ham, police, whatever – both in Mexico and in the U.S. Every time I meet him, I get at least one moderately mind-blowing lecture on some aspect of radio I never even knew existed. It’s exhausting, like a 3-hour workout in the gym is exhausting, but the long-term effects are invaluable. To quote a favorite line from a favorite movie, “The man’s enlarged my mind.“ And I’ve barely known him two months. Useful things, like how to use a satellite dish to improve cell phone reception by up to 20dB; how to set up a wireless internet bridge over tens of miles; how to get wire in the air and make it talk. Despite our scientific domestication of the electromagnetic spectrum, antenna theory still has the bulk of its wisdom cloaked in murky black magic. Hector is a brujo. His hidden agenda seems to be to get me active on 6m, the Twilight Zone of the ham spectra. On the elusive cusp of HF and VHF it’s neither fish nor fowl, but it swims and flies.

I don’t really know what to expect. This is my first ham thing. A weekend of overweight, aging men (mostly) and awkward, pimply boy scouts peddling everything from CB garbage to newfangled, sparkly technology some NASA engineers are probably envious of, with the feel of a mad scientist flea market and an American Legion spaghetti dinner, with ambulances, cops, military personnel (retired, for the most part) and a few “young” and bright-eyed freaks like me all played out on the virtually abandoned but carefully manicured fairgrounds that point to a recent past much more prosperous than the present uncomfortably stepping into its shoes. Permanent buildings for livestock, “the arts,” Shriner Clowns, 4H Club, etc. with vast, trimmed green lawns and desperately empty parking lots.

The call-in frequency seems to be dead, but a dutiful yet friendly woman’s voice comes right back at me when I toss out a casual request for a radio check on my HT. Someone has set up a repeater on 2m just for the fest. My first walk through the grounds takes me past several tents with stuff for sale – some antique keyers, decrepit hard drives, a drill press, a shiny Yaesu FT-1000; one large setup has a complete selection of Pb/acid batteries in more shapes and sizes than I even knew existed, plus cable, connectors, tools, vacuum tubes, variable capacitors, military surplus oscilloscope probes vacuum-packed in mylar bricks. In five years, about half the items I see today will be scientific heirlooms worthy of awe and wonder. Today they are still just junk, except to the discerning (and caring) few. Like the portable microbeam scope, ca 1947. Belongs in a museum, but you can have it for $25 without haggling.

In the main hall, I’m guided by some inner force to a vendor selling connecting aluminum/fiberglass poles. $2 each. What? I’ll take all of them, I tell the seller. While he’s busy talking, still trying to sell me on an item I’ve already bought, another buyer grabs the bag out from under me. Too late. I still have a chance to purchase ten of them in a loose pile, just enough to get the two ends of a pathetically low-to-the-ground 80m dipole (my first home-brewed antenna, by the way) a bit higher off the lossy ground. Exactly what I needed, and for twenty bucks.

I’m hooked.

It’s Friday, and the big day is tomorrow. I’m just here to get a basic feel for the event, and to double-check the seminar schedule. There are three or four seminars I’d like to attend tomorrow: Satellite Communications on 2.5mW; Kraft-Ebing Psychopathology of Disaster Sites; Introduction to Deadly Orgone Radiation; Hazmat & You, Post-9/11; Emergency Preparedness for Massive Electromotive Disruption. And of course, there’s the annual Buzzard BBQ.

I make a point of visiting every booth, if only briefly. Most of the exhibitors seem all too eager to tell me everything about every single product or service they’re hawking. Perhaps they’d tell me all about their spouses’ colonic biopsy or a buddy recently gone Silent Key (the most elegant and noble euphemism for death in any field I’ve come across.) But along with the sense that many here are clinging to a long lost glory I can never understand, I can smell the funky, fertile manure of a future about to emerge, bloody and screaming, from the teenage transhuman uterus of the present. In this boneyard of outmoded crystal oscillators, manuals for long-deceased radio circuits and analog forgottenhood, the mind-bending fungus of The Inevitable is developing with a will of its own, the nascent nervous system of an undocumented and unexpected Singularity: a global nerve net consisting of technologically fluent, warm-blooded human beings who know how to communicate, who know how to build transmitters from spare parts scrounged from burned analog TVs and who play well with others, with total strangers, be they from foreign countries, different generations, or distant galaxies.

to be continued….

state trooper

by Bruce Springsteen, from Nebraska

one of us cannot be wrong

by Leonard Cohen

love calls you by your name

by Leonard Cohen

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