346 episodes

Starting in the wonderful hobby of Amateur or HAM Radio can be daunting and challenging but can be very rewarding. Every week I look at a different aspect of the hobby, how you might fit in and get the very best from the 1000 hobbies that Amateur Radio represents. Note that this podcast started in 2011 as "What use is an F-call?".

Foundations of Amateur Radio Onno (VK6FLAB)

    • Leisure
    • 4.9 • 7 Ratings

Starting in the wonderful hobby of Amateur or HAM Radio can be daunting and challenging but can be very rewarding. Every week I look at a different aspect of the hobby, how you might fit in and get the very best from the 1000 hobbies that Amateur Radio represents. Note that this podcast started in 2011 as "What use is an F-call?".

    How to run an SSB contest without using your voice ...

    How to run an SSB contest without using your voice ...

    Foundations of Amateur Radio

    As you might know, I consider myself a contester. I derive great pleasure from getting on air and making noise during a contest. It gives me a wonderful opportunity to test my station, hone my skills and work on learning something new every time I participate.

    Due to circumstances I've been away from contesting for a number of years, but recently I was able scratch my itch from my own shack. For 24 glorious hours I was able to make contacts from the comfort of my home, being able to make a cup of tea, eat some dinner, stay warm, catch a nap when the bands were closed and generally have a blast.

    My set-up worked well. Operating QRP or low power, I used a basic contest logger, since I wasn't expecting to be making many contacts. To automatically call CQ, I recorded my voice and set-up a script that played the audio, waited four seconds, then played it again. Using my audio mixer, I could turn that on and off at will and between that and the headset I was wearing I had loads of fun and even made contacts!

    During the last three hours of the contest my partner came home. After hearing me attempt to confirm an exchange for a while, it became apparent that making exchanges, calling CQ and generally talking out loud was going to be an issue in our home, since my shack is within hearing range of the entire house. That or I'm going deaf and my voice is getting louder. I do get excited from time to time!

    For the past several months I've been trying to find a solution and until today I wasn't getting any closer.

    I didn't think I was asking for too much.

    I'm looking for a contest logger, that runs on Linux, that has the super check partial database, knows the contest rules and most importantly, has a voice keyer with the ability to actually voice the exchange itself, as-in, not a pre-recorded audio file, but the ability to speak any callsign and any exchange.

    As an aside, the super check partial database is a list of frequently heard contest callsigns, originally introduced by Ken K1EA, which if used properly, helps you when you're deciphering a callsign on a noisy band. Using it to guess calls and make mistakes can result in significant penalties for some contests.

    The only tool I've come across that does all this in any way is N1MM. It runs on Windows and I have to tell you, the idea of having to buy a new computer, just to run a supported version of Windows just doesn't do it for me. N1MM also doesn't use Hamlib, so my radio needs to be physically connected to the computer. I won't bore you with my weeks of attempts, but it became farcical.

    During my months of exploration I looked at and tried plenty of other tools. Many of them aren't intended for contesting, don't have access to the super check partial database, don't do voice-keying, don't run under Linux, require weird bits of extra software, have little or no documentation and a myriad of other issues like having to compile from source with arcane library requirements, the list goes on.

    One contender that got close was a text only tool called TLF. It got so close that I almost used it for my previous contest. In the end I didn't because it was doing unpredictable things with the display and I had to write my own contest rule file for an unsupported contest which I couldn't test in time to actually use.

    Today I took another look.

    TLF doesn't have a voice-keyer on board, but it does have the ability to interface with a Morse-keyer, which is interesting, since it implies that there is a process that translates callsigns and messages typed in with a keyboard into Morse, which might mean that it may be possible to pretend to be a Morse-key and make voice sounds instead.

    The Morse-keyer software in question is cwdaemon. It accepts text messages from TLF and then converts those into Morse code and then directly controls your radio to generate dits and dahs on-air.

    I started digging through the source code when I realised that cwdaemon might h

    • 5 min
    The inherent redundancy of a compromise antenna

    The inherent redundancy of a compromise antenna

    Foundations of Amateur Radio

    For an activity that's seeped in the art of communication, amateur radio is a diverse collection of people, joined by a common interest and kept together using imperfect language describing an intrinsically complex science in the hope that we can learn from each other to get on air and make noise.

    In this cooperative endeavour, language is important.

    Let me start with a limerick by Arthur Frackenpohl:

    There was a young fellow of Perth
    Who was born on the day of his birth
    He married, they say
    On his wife's wedding day
    And died when he quitted the earth

    Stay with me.

    In this day and age, first and foremost, let me give you a short summary, cobbled together from bits and pieces of a new invention, conceived whilst watching the evening sunset in close proximity to the beach.

    What this cornucopia of tautologies has to do with our hobby might not be obvious, but let me illustrate.

    Consider the phrase: "a compromise antenna", as-in, "Oh, I'd never use that antenna, it's a compromise antenna."

    If you've been in this community for any time at all, you'll have heard that phrase and unless someone pointed it out, you might not have realised that it's essentially unhelpful.


    Because as I've said many times before, all antennas are a compromise, by definition. This is true at several levels.

    At a fundamental level, an isotropic antenna is a theoretical antenna that radiates equally in all directions - horizontally and vertically with the same intensity. It's infinitely small and operates on all frequencies with infinite bandwidth. It should be obvious, but this antenna cannot physically exist, so every built antenna represents a collection of trade-offs or compromises and no antenna can radiate more total power than an isotropic antenna.

    Beyond that, within the physical constraints of antenna building there are many more compromises. Now this might not be immediately obvious, so let me elaborate.

    Consider a 28 MHz, seven element Yagi antenna. With a 12m boom, a 5.3m reflector element, a turning circle of 7.5m and weighing in at 53 kilo. At 20m above the ground it has a gain of 17.5 dBi and handles 1.5 kW. It's physically capable of withstanding 180 km/h winds. It's a lovely piece of kit and if you have the space, it's absolutely something you might want to receive for your birthday and bolt to a mast somewhere near your radio.

    If all antennas are a compromise, you might ask yourself, how is this beautiful 10m Yagi a compromise?

    For starters, its total radiated power is less than an isotropic antenna. It works between 28 and 29 MHz, but nowhere else. It radiates signals really well in one direction, but not in any other. It requires lots of open space and as a fixed installation, it must be on a heavy duty rotator clamped to a tall mast. To actually acquire and install requires more funds than I've spent on all my radios to date.

    Some of what I've mentioned might be acceptable to you, some not. For example, if you're always portable, this antenna makes no sense. You make choices to select an antenna that's best suited to the job and in doing so, you are introducing compromises.

    Additionally, there are amateurs who would have you believe that a compromise antenna is one with high loss.

    High loss in comparison to what?

    If you live in an apartment block, there's no way that you can fit that 10m Yagi inside your bedroom, so you compromise and use a magnetic loop antenna instead. If you're on the top of a mountain, there's no opportunity to erect a structure, so you use a self-supporting vertical. If you're in a car, you cannot erect a horizontal dipole and drive down the highway, so you bolt a whip to your jalopy.

    All of the choices you make to fit a purpose, an environment, a budget and available material will combine into an antenna that hopefully gets you on air making noise.

    When someone tells you that an antenna is a compromise antenna, what they're really saying is that you ma

    • 5 min
    Standard Information Exchange in Amateur Radio

    Standard Information Exchange in Amateur Radio

    Foundations of Amateur Radio

    The art of storing information in such a way that it doesn't devolve into random gibberish is an ongoing battle in the evolution of the human race. Egyptians five thousand years ago were perfectly happy storing information using hieroglyphs. They used it for well over three thousand years, but today you'd be hard pressed bumping into anyone on the street who knows one, let alone one thousand characters.

    Latin fared a little better. It's been in use for over two thousand years, but other than fields like biology, medicine and of course some religions, the best you can hope for is et cetera, mea culpa and my favourite, carpe noctum, that and a few mottos scattered about.

    Using technology to store information is no better. If you have a 3.5 inch floppy disc tucked away in a drawer, can you still read it today and do you know why it's called a floppy disc? What about a 5.25 inch, or 8 inch floppy. What about tape. Do you still have backups stored on DAT?

    Even if you could physically read the information, could you still make sense of it? Can you open a VisiCalc spreadsheet file today? That was invented during my lifetime, first released in 1979. The latest release was in 1983.

    My point being that storing and retrieving information is hard.

    Amateur Radio is an activity that has been around since the early 1900's, over a century of information. We describe our collective wisdom in books, magazines, audio recordings, websites, podcasts, videos and tweets.

    One of the more consistent sources of information coming from our activity is logging, specifically QSO or contact logging. There are bookshelves full of paper log files, but since the advent of home computing, logging now is primarily an electronic affair.

    If you've upgraded the software on your computer, you know the pains associated with maintaining your log across those transitions. If you've changed operating systems, the problem only got worse.

    Currently there are primarily two standards associated with logging, the ADIF and Cabrillo specifications. Both are published ways of describing how to store information in such a way that various bits of software can read the information and arrive at the same interpretation.

    As you might expect, things change over time and any standard needs to be able to adopt changes as they occur. How that happens is less than transparent and in an open community like amateur radio, that's a problem.

    Used primarily for logging contacts, the Amateur Data Interchange Format or ADIF is published on a website, adif.org. There's lively discussion in a mailing list and since its inception in 1996, it's evolved through many versions, incorporating change as it happens. Like the adoption of new digital modes, new country codes and administrative subdivisions.

    Used for contest logging, Cabrillo is published on the World Wide Radio Operators Foundation, or WWROF web site which assumed administration for the specification in 2014. It documents changes as they occurred, like adding contest names, station types and contest overlays. While there's clearly activity happening, there doesn't appear to be a public forum where this is discussed.

    Speaking of public.

    The DXCC, or DX Century Club is a radio award for working countries on a list. ADIF stores those country codes using the DXCC country code number, which is part of the specification published by the ARRL, the American Radio Relay League. The list of DXCC entities is copyrighted by the ARRL, which is fair enough, but you have to actually buy it from the ARRL to get a copy. This is a problem because it means that any future archivist, you included, needs access to a specific version of both the ADIF and the then valid DXCC list, just to read the information in a log file. To put it mildly, in my opinion, that's bonkers.

    Relying on external information isn't limited to ADIF. Cabrillo relies on external data for the format of the Location field which indicates whe

    • 7 min
    You in the community ...

    You in the community ...

    Foundations of Amateur Radio

    The other day a member of our community proudly showed off their plaque for first place as a Short Wave Listener or SWL in the Poland SP DX Contest. Together with their dad they listened on 80m using a WebSDR and logged all the contacts they were able to hear. Their participation didn't include transmitters, since neither have got their callsigns, yet.

    To me this illustrates exactly what it's like to dip your toes into the world of amateur radio and it's a path that many amateurs have taken to become licensed and transmitting.

    I'm mentioning this because that same short wave listener also won a platinum diploma from the anniversary of Stanislaw Lem's 100th birthday amateur contest.

    If that name sends tingles of excitement down your spine, you're familiar with his work. If not, you might be interested to know that Stanislaw Lem was a world acclaimed Polish writer of science fiction who died in 2006.

    This random discovery, in addition to giving me ideas about opportunities for contests and awards, reminded me of other times when in one setting I've been surprised by information relating to another setting. In this case, science fiction. In previous workplaces I've come across software developers, technicians and managers who outside their roles in computing were active as volunteer fire-fighters, paramedics, writers, stage performers, singers, foster parents and more.

    It occurred to me that we in the amateur radio community spend most, if not all, of our time discussing amateur radio, but that we likely share other interests with our community. I recently discovered other science fiction nerds, a cos-player, there's some volunteer fire-fighters and the like, no doubt there's more.

    My point being that in addition to finding more common ground between us as a community, we also have the opportunity to share our hobby with other people who share our interests. It's hard to imagine that science fiction fans and fire-fighters for example are unable to relate to amateur radio.

    Don't get me wrong. I'm not advocating that you hit the members of your other communities over the back of the head with amateur radio. Instead, think of it as another way to connect to that group.

    The thing that strikes me about our amateur community is the diversity that it encompasses. It means that there's likely plenty of other interests that you will find that bind you to other amateurs and it likely means that your other hobbies and interests might share some of your amateur interests.

    Truth be told, as all consuming as amateur radio is, it's not the only thing that defines you and it's not the only thing of interest to the people around you.

    What those interests are is up to you.

    Only one way to find out.

    Talk with your friends.

    I'm Onno VK6FLAB

    • 2 min
    The sun shines on our hobby in unexpected ways.

    The sun shines on our hobby in unexpected ways.

    Foundations of Amateur Radio

    When you begin your amateur radio journey, one of the first things you learn about that's not directly involved with radios and antennas is the ionosphere and its impact on long distance communications. Immediately after that you are more likely that not to be introduced to the biggest plasma experiment in our backyard, the Sun.

    With that introduction comes information about solar flares, solar flux, sunspots, geomagnetic storms, coronal mass ejections as well as the solar cycle, the solar index and associated propagation forecasts.

    Before I dig further, I will point out that I'm mentioning this with the ultimate aim for you to get on air and make noise, so fasten your seat-belt and let's go for a ride.

    The Sun is big. If it was hollow, it could fit more than a million Earths inside. The Sun accounts for 99.8% of the total mass of our entire solar system. About 73% of the Sun's mass is hydrogen, about 25% is helium and the rest, about 1.69% is made up of all the other heavier elements, both gasses and metals, which add up to around 5628 times the mass of Earth.

    The Sun rotates. Counter-clockwise. Since it's mostly plasma, it doesn't rotate like Earth does. The equator takes about 24 days, the poles around 35 days and because its rotating on an angle of about 7.25 degrees from Earth's rotation axis, we get to see more of the solar north pole in September and more of the solar south pole in March.

    Earth orbits the Sun in a year, but it's not a circular orbit. We're closest to the Sun in December and furthest from the Sun in June. It takes about eight minutes and 19 seconds for a photon leaving the Sun to reach Earth, but that same photon can take between 40,000 and 170,000 years to travel from the core where two atoms were heated and compressed to fuse into a new element releasing a photon and heat. It takes this long because the photon keeps bumping into other atoms along the way. While we're at it, consuming about 4 million tons of hydrogen per second, the Sun will take another 5 billion years to consume all the available hydrogen.

    Whilst we experience the Sun as a source of light on a daily basis, as a radio amateur you know that light is just one tiny part of the electromagnetic spectrum. It should come as no surprise that the Sun is radiating across all frequencies all the time, only some of which is visible to our naked eye.

    As an aside, it's interesting to note that our eyes are essentially translating light into electricity, or said differently, your eye converts radio spectrum into electricity, something which your radio antenna also does.

    Back to the Sun.

    I'm highlighting this level of solar complexity because there's so much talk about the A index, the K index, the SFI, the solar cycle and propagation by experts and amateurs that it's easy to hide behind those numbers and think that a low A between 1 and 6, a low K of 0 or 1 with an SFI above 100 will give you the propagation you're looking for.

    If you think for a moment that the weather forecaster has a difficult job accurately telling you if you need to postpone your outdoor activation because of rain or snow, then you can begin to understand just how complex the interplay between the Sun and our ionosphere is. And I haven't even mentioned that the ionosphere isn't static either.

    It's important to remember that the cute little weather icons you see on the TV news are just as much an indicator of expected weather as the A, K and SFI numbers are for the Sun and its impact on radio propagation. They give you an idea of what might happen, but it doesn't mean that on any given day something completely random and isolated happens that just affects your station and the path that a radio signal took from your antenna to that other rare DX station.

    Just like it would be smart to take an umbrella with you when there's rain forecast, it's also smart to consider the bands you want to operate next time you go on air with a particular

    • 4 min
    We need more glue in our hobby ...

    We need more glue in our hobby ...

    Foundations of Amateur Radio

    Since December 2010 I've been licensed as a radio amateur. For some this seems like a long time ago, for others, it's just the beginning. In my time thus far I've attempted to document and describe my journey and in doing so, I've had the unbeatable pleasure of hearing stories from others who were inspired by my efforts to join, or rejoin the hobby.

    It occurred to me that it's hard to tell when you look at any one amateur if the ink on their licence is still wet, or if the whole certificate is faded and yellowed with time.

    You also cannot tell by looking if one amateur turns on their gear in the car during the daily commute, or if they go out on expeditions to remote locations twice a year.

    The callsign a person holds tells you even less, let alone the class of their license.

    In our community we talk about mentoring and we call such people Elmers, but do we really use this as a way to glue together our hobby as its namesake might suggest?

    As a result of my profile, there's a steady stream of commentary about what I do and how I do it. As you might expect, there's both good and bad, sometimes describing the same thing from opposite sides in equally heated terms.

    I'd like to take this opportunity to point out that playing the man and not the ball will get you completely ignored. If however you have a specific grievance with any technical aspect of what I'm contributing, by all means let me know, but be prepared to provide references because it might come as a surprise, I do research before I open my mouth. That's not to say that I don't make mistakes, I'm sure I do and have.

    Before this turns into a self congratulatory oration, I'd like to point out that all the negative feedback I see all around me does nothing to grow our hobby, does nothing to encourage learning, does nothing to reward trial and error and it doesn't contribute to society at large in any way.

    I'm mentioning this because I also receive emails from amateurs who have left the community, not because of lack of interest, but because of the bullying that they've experienced.

    I know that there are several local activities that I avoid because it's just not fun to bump into people who are friendly to your face whilst being vicious online.

    It continues to amaze me that this topic keeps recurring and that it keeps needing to be called out. One thing I can tell you is that ignoring it doesn't work. I've described previously what you should do instead when you're the subject of such petulant behaviour, but it bears repeating. Say it out loud.

    "Thank you for your comment. I don't believe that it's in the spirit of amateur radio. Please stop."

    Feel free to use that phrase anytime someone in this hobby makes you feel uncomfortable.

    One final observation. If you've not personally experienced this behaviour that's great, but it doesn't mean that it doesn't happen or that it's not endemic. Consider for a moment how you'd feel if you were attacked whilst being active in a hobby you love, for no other reason than that the person attacking you didn't like the wire you were using to construct a dipole or some other equally outrageous reason like your gender, sexual orientation, license class, choice of radio or preferred on-air activity.

    Say it with me:

    "Thank you for your comment. I don't believe that it's in the spirit of amateur radio. Please stop."

    I'm Onno VK6FLAB

    • 3 min

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