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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

They all passed!

From a previous entries, I mentioned the Technician license class that Marv K2VHW and I were teaching this winter. The final session and exams were last night. We had an ARRL VEC accredited team present to administer exams.

I am happy to report that the entire class passed and are now Technician class licensees, awaiting callsign assignments from the FCC.

It would be an understatement to say that Marv and I were pleased with the results. We were more akin to proud parents; that might be the best way to put it.

The feedback we got from our students was extremely positive. We're hoping that we have the beginnings of a new Amateur Radio club in the embryonic stages. Possibly it will be centered around emergency and public service communications. Getting all of us together for Field Day would be real nice; but maybe too ambitious for this year.

We're also looking into the possibilities of doing this again next winter; with the added prospect of having some of our graduates pitch in and help with the teaching.

73 de Larry W2LJ

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Logging program shootout

So far, the incumbent is winning. I've customized the heck out of AC Log; but I keep going back to Win-EQF. Maybe it's just that habits are hard to break; but I like Tom's program better.

A final final decision hasn't been reached, however.

73 de Larry W2LJ

The Advocate

This appeared in the March 19th, 2006 edition of The Advocate, from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Attic Salt for March 19

Morse Code in danger of disappearing

By ED CULLEN
Advocate columnist
Published: Mar 19, 2006

An editor who was a Coast Guard radioman handed me a copy of a wire story about the Morse Code. Across the top, he’d written — “dit, dit, dah, dit — dah, dit, dah, dah — dit, dit.”

The editor’s coded message, written in a way discouraged by our instructors at Navy radio school, said “FYI.”

In the 1960s, radio telegraphy was still taught in military communication schools. It differed from the way Samuel F.B. Morse’s code sounded. Modern Morse Code, sent by radio transmitter, is a series of short and long tones. Early Morse Code relied on holes punched in paper or the spaces between clicks generated by electricity passing through an electromagnet.

In the Boy Scouts, we learned the code in written form first, a practice frowned upon by serious telegraphers because it slowed one’s deciphering the received code. Code, it was argued, should be regarded as another foreign language. The operator should be able to hear a series of dits and dahs and recognize a word. He shouldn’t have to first visualize the code. He should hear it and know the words as though someone were speaking to him in French.

When the U.S. military abandoned the Morse Code as outdated and slow, old radiomen wrote letters to the newspapers defending their art. It is true that the code can be “copied” when the radio bands make voice communication unworkable, but not enough people knew the code or could copy it at speed sufficient to make it practical.

There was the telephone, after all. And cell phones. And, of course, computers. All of which failed during Hurricane Katrina.

Ham radio operators didn’t use much code during Katrina, compared to the thousands of messages relayed by voice, but it was there if needed.

One of the great ironies of Katrina is that state-of-the-art communications systems, private and ones run by the government, failed. Ham radio operators using relatively inexpensive equipment carried the ball for weeks after the storm.

Now, even ham radio may be turning its back on the code or CW (continuous wave).

The FCC has been asked to drop the code requirement in ham radio licensing which makes sense. CW isn’t used by that many hams, and it keeps young people from applying for radio licenses. Without new blood, it’s feared the government will auction off parts of ham bands to commercial interests.

But hams fear that if the FCC makes it too easy to get an amateur license amateur radio will go the way of Citizens Band.

The code is what attracted me to ham radio. When I get on the air, it is code that I use. I haven’t anything urgent to communicate, so the speed of CW is just right.

I think there’s an argument for keeping the code. Why should everything be easy? Require learning the code, but lower the speed for licensing.

Morse Code is part of the romance of radio, a pastime once so accessible to its devotees that many operators built their own transmitters and receivers.

Old radios with their softly glowing tubes, homemade antennas and handsome brass telegraph keys are art practiced by ordinary Joes and Janes.

The Morse Code was something you could start to learn on a front porch on a rainy afternoon. Last week, when the story on Morse Code ran, men across the country took the occasion to use a language they learned in the service or the Scouts to communicate with kindred spirits. And not in e-mail but by making the sounds themselves or writing out the code.

So primitive. So neat.

___________________________________________________________________

73 de Larry W2LJ

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Progress

It's been a few weeks since I finished restoring the Vibroplex Original that I acquired on eBay. Now it's time to use it; as I have detailed in a previous post. Practice makes perfect; but there are also a few other resources that I am taking advantage of to help myself become a "veteran" bug user.

The first thing is to enlist the use of a "bug tamer". Even after installing all the weights I have on the pendulum of this thing, the speed is still way too high. By ear, I would estimate somewhere between 25 - 30 WPM. I can copy that; but I'm not comfortable sending that fast. My top reliable accurate sending speed poops out at about 23 WPM right now. So I have enlisted the use of a device to help mechanically slow down the vibrations of the pendulum.

It's nothing more than an aluminum tube which fits over the end of the pendulum, and extends outward. It has a weight at the end. With that installed, I can vary the speed of the bug depending on where I locate the "original" weights on the pendulum. I can slow the bug speed down to about as low as 13 WPM or so. I have it set right now, so that I am at about 18 WPM. I don't want to go too fast, even though I can normally send a little faster. I don't want to develop any sloppy tendencies.

The other thing that I have been using that is a tremendous help is a CW reading program on the computer in the shack. No ....... I'm not using it to decode CW coming off the radio. Sorry guys, but it my eyes, that's akin to blasphemy. But how I do use it, is as follows:

I get the computer program running, turn on the K2 and turn the AF gain all the way down. Then, I turn the VOX circuit off so I can key the rig without putting out any RF. The sidetone still sounds; because on the K2, the sidetone level is independent of the AF gain. So with the AF gain all the way down; and no RF coming out, I can use the K2 as a glorified code practice oscillator. At this point the CW reading program will decode whatever I send !!! I figure that if I can get to the point where I can send good enough so that the computer can reliably read it; then I must be sending out decent (at the very least) Morse Code.

So far so good. I'm still making mistakes, getting used to making those manual dahs is a pain. But what's coming out on the computer screen is starting to be, more often than not, legible copy. By the way, the CW decoding problem that I use is available for free from the AmQRP Website. You can click here, to get it.

73 de Larry W2LJ

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

An Editorial

The following appeared in today's Toledo Blade, in Toledo, Ohio. It pretty much sums up my feelings about this issue.

SOS for a fading skill


A PROPOSAL by the Federal Communications Commission to eliminate the Morse code requirement for gaining an amateur radio license is probably inevitable in the Internet age. Still, it marks another sad surrender to technological advance and a further step away from basic skills that stimulate the mind and improve the human condition.

The FCC is considering new rules that will no longer require applicants for a "ham" radio permit to send and receive messages with the electronic dots and dashes developed by Samuel F.B. Morse for his patented telegraph nearly 170 years ago.

The change, likely to be adopted next year, is mostly an issue for some 600,000 radio amateurs in the U.S., who now must demonstrate their code proficiency at five words per minute along with written examinations on technical matters and radio procedure for various levels of licensing. Dedicated hams believe the code requirement is among the factors that have separated them from the comparative frivolity of "citizens band" radio.

But it's more than that. Dropping the code requirement further distances the radio operator from the basics of the craft. While it is certainly easier to simply speak into a microphone than tap out a message on a telegraph key, the fact that less skill is required is not necessarily an advance.

Learning Morse code once was considered valuable not only for simple communication but also because it sharpened the mind. Generations of Boy Scouts may have been bedeviled by code tests needed to advance in rank and earn merit badges, but they were better, more responsible individuals for the effort and experience.

Likewise, amateur radio operators who know and use Morse code are, in a sense, more in tune with themselves and others. With their battery-powered equipment, hams continue to play an important role in modern communications, as they demonstrated during Hurricane Katrina, when land lines fell to the storm and the failure of electric plants made cell phones and the Internet useless in the face of disaster.

While it is almost certain that the FCC will drop the code requirement for amateur radio licenses, we would do well to use the occasion to ponder one of life's fading lessons:

Just because something is hard doesn't mean it's useless and, conversely, just because something is easy doesn't mean it's good.

Nearing the Finish Line

Last night was the next to last session of the Technician Class license course that I have been co-teaching since the beginning of January. It ended up being a 10 week course with six students. Next week is the exam session. An ARRL accredited VE team is coming in to administer the examinations; and we've opened up that session so anyone from the general public can come in for an exam.

The guys have all done a magnificent job! Last week we gave them a practice exam and they all passed. Last night, we gave them two more. One was given at the beginning of the session; and the second was given at the conclusion. In both instances, everyone "made the grade"! That was very satisfying to see.

One of our six students is the son of one of the other students. They came in as a father and son team. It was a kick to see son get fewer answers wrong on his exam than Dad! Willie, the son, is very interested in Ham Radio. I think he's going to go far with the hobby. More on that in a bit.

I am confident that in two weeks or so, five new callsigns will be issued. Five callsigns from six students? Yep, one of our students went to a Hamfest a couple of weeks ago and already passed his test. I am certain the other five will do just as well.

Next week will be out last session together; but in reality, it is just the beginning. The easy part was helping these folks to get their tickets. Now the work begins. The heavy lifting will be to make sure these guys at least get the chance to stay interested and active.

The Ham who co-taught this class with me is Marvin Bronstein, K2VHW. I cannot say enough about Marv! He is the greatest! He is a broadcast engineer by trade, who works for WABC TV in New York City. Marv has the distinct gift of taking difficult to understand concepts; and translate them into terms that make sense and are no longer mysterious. He came up with a couple of explanations for certain concepts that I've always understood; but now I understand them even better as a result of listening to him. Marv is definitely a "Ham's Ham" and quite an Elmer. His enthusiasm for Amateur Radio, for the students and for garnering new Hams is to be admired. I wish I knew a ton more guys like him.

Our group of South Plainfield Hams has to nurture these guys once they receive their callsigns. After all this work, I'd hate to see any of these guys go to the wayside because they failed to have good mentoring (for lack of a better term). To that end, we'll probably inaugurate some kind of South Plainfield Amateur Radio Club where we can gather and help them in their Amateur Radio endeavors. We've gotten their feet in the door. Now we need to get the rest of their bodies through.

73 de Larry W2LJ

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

A Tale of Two Logs

This comes from right out of the "Stupid Department"; but I am facing a dilemma. The dilemma involves which computer logging program to use. I know, I know, this is not "important, matter-of-life-and-death" stuff; but when you spend a lot of time on the air; you consequently end up spending a lot of time using a logging program.

Since 1992, I have been using Log-EQF and more recently, its Windows variant Win-EQF. It's a very nice program; and I have met the author, Tom Dandrea at the Dayton Hamvention. He's a super nice guy who has written a superb logging program. It's nice and easy to use. It does everything I want it to do; and it fits like a comfortable slipper or loafer. Most importantly, I can attach to each QSO a rather long comment field. I alos use my log as kind of an "Amateur Radio Journal". Not only do I detail what the QSOs were about; but I might also comment on new equipment, band conditions, out of the ordinary weather - all that kind of stuff.

Recently, I have heard rave reviews and have tried using Scott Davis, N3FJP's ACLog. This is also a superb, very nice logging program. Here's the rub. This program is "sexy". It looks and behaves like a Windows program. It looks like an Excel spreadsheet, actually. Win-EQF, on the other hand, looks like a Unix syle program that was made to work with Windows; not FOR Windows! And ACLog offers a degree of customization that Win-EQF doesn't. I can add fields for NAQCC and SKCC membership numbers, for example. I can order the tab number of the data fields; so I can enter data in the order that I want. It's truly a wonderful program with nothing but glowing reviews from it's users.

So what's the dilemma then? It sounds like ACLog is the runaway winner, right? Not so fast, Bunky! Win-EQF has some things going for it that make me want to stay with it anyway. There's the familiarity issue, for one. It's like an old friend that I really don't have to think about; I just "know" it. It displays all the information, I want for the most part (except for the extra fields). And the fact that there's a bit less customization means there are fewer decisions that I have to conciously make.

What to do ...... what to do. For now, they're both on my computer. I'll use them side by side for a while and see which one I gravitate to.

73 de Larry W2LJ

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Buggin' out!

Now that my Vibroplex Original Standard has gone through its restoration process, via yours truly, now comes the time to hook the lil' bugger (pun intended) up and use it.

Hooking it up is the easy part. Using it is another thing, entirely. In actuality, it's not difficult to use at all. In fact, it's very much like using a keyer and paddles.

That's the problem!

For the past 22 years, I have been using a keyer and paddles. I used to use a Bug many years ago; but it was MANY years ago! My brain is so used to touching a paddle lever and getting a series of dits and then touching the other paddle to get a series of dahs; that it has become ingrained.

Getting on the Bug the first time wasn't too bad. I pressed the lever in one direction and got a series of well formed and well designed dits. So far, so good. I pressed the lever in the other direction and got one well formed; but interminably long dah! Oh yes, that's right ... I AM THE ONE who has to manually make the dahs! Sorry, not used to that! The tendancy is to leave my finger on the lever way too long! Unfortunately, this is International Morse Code I'm dealing with and not American Morse. There are no extremely loooooong dahs in this system!

What to do? Practice, practice and practice some more! I have been sending imaginary exchanges to my keyer with its speaker turned on. This allows me to conveniently send "off the air". And after a few evenings, I judged that I didn't sound way too terribly. So I got on the air and called a CQ on 80 Meters. A guy came back to me and was actually able to decipher what I was sending! Wow!

In reality, while it's not terrible, I'm not comfortable with the way it sounds. My code with the Bug is still a little disjointed and stacatto. My fist is indeed, legible; but it doesn't "flow" at this point. It sounds more like the orchestra tuning up than playing the actual symphony. I pride myself on my Morse being "liquid" and being easy to listen to and decipher. Maybe I'm my own worst critic; but I am not happy ...... yet.

I need some more practice; but I do think I see the light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe in a few more weeks, I'll actually feel comfortable enough to get on the air and not make a fool of myself (again). I just hope that light I see at the end of the tunnel isn't a train!

73 de Larry W2LJ