Saturday, 10 February 2018

My FT-817 - battered but still going. FT-818? Maybe not.

My FT-817 is looking a bit sorry for itself. The top panel is scored and scratched. It is battle-weary, after operating from 9 DXCCs and passing through endless airport baggage checks. It has had more X-Rays than I have (which is saying something, I had a X-Ray last weekend. Bet it hasn't had an MRI scan though).

GM4FVM's FT-817nd, complete with dents and scratches.

It is not very original. So far the modifications and additions I have made for my trips are as follows:-
1) "Peg Legs" which allow it to be set at a reasonable angle and which help ventilation
2) "Kranker" VFO knob
3) TCXO - temperature compensated crystal oscillator for better stability
4) Collins filter to replace the pretty dire original
5) ZLP datalink interface (with VOX)
6) Bluetooth CAT dongle
7) 70MHz (4 metre band) transverter
 8) Whip antennas for 2m, 4m, 6m, 10m, 12m, 15m and 20m bands, plus various random wire antennas and assorted dipoles
9) A 13.8 volt 2 amp power supply
10) Various leads for audio and earth connections.

Every acessory was supplied directly from UK, Japan, Germany, China, Ukraine, Malaysia and USA by my exclusively preferred up-market accessory emporium - Messrs E-bay of Bond Street, London, with branches on every computer worldwide..

Quite a pile of cheap extras in fact, with the Peg Legs and the Kranker making it bulky, the internal bits making it heavier and the outboard bits looking like a 1930s telephone exchange. Somehow I have always made it onto the aircraft.

Very early on in this process I did wonder whether this radio deserved all this investment. Compared to the Flex 1500 I had it seemed like an old technology solution, as I debated here on this blog. But, the FT-817 is still around the shack while the Flex is long gone. It has also had various repairs, like the end of the DC plug breaking off and blocking the socket (fairly common I believe, but surprisingly hard to fix).

So I backed the FT-817 to the extent of spending more money on it. Largely, each time was to target some design failure in the basic rig. The legs and the Kranker mods would not have been necessary if those features had been considered at the design stage. For example mine might run almost 5 watts at turning on, but it falls to 2 watts as it warms up - and the Peg Legs help a little. Really I would need to use a fan and I do this sometimes, but why does it not have a fan if it needs one? Then again, its substantial power consumption even on receive suggests the power goes somewhere, and I guess it is into heat. Even on receive it gets mightily hot.

I have often thought about replacing the PA device and making sure the new one has a good heat path to the frame, but so far I think it is best to leave well enough alone. 2 watts is usually enough for me. The TCXO is essential for my data modes work, and the better filter makes a significant difference. The ZLP interface has a VOX because the rig does not have a digi-vox, and nor does it have a USB connection. I use the Bluetooth dongle to work the CAT control as I found it impossible to connect the CAT control to any computer with a lead without creating a lot of white noise in the radio.

The 4 metre transverter is a new idea. I already have a transverter but this one is intended for taking away on holiday and also for using from my car. It is not a great piece of equipment but it works. It is moderately effective on receive and produces 10 watts happily on long transmissions FM, needing only 1 watt drive from the FT-817. It solves an issue I have when out portable where up to now I have all the bands I want on SSB and data, but only FM on 4m. Now I can use all modes on 4m whilst away.

Perhaps the most tedious aspect of the 817 is that it is sold with a "battery charger" rather than a power supply. The charger can produce neither the current nor the voltage to run the rig directly and the 817 reduces the output power to 2.5 watts if you try. So I have a small switch mode PSU to fill the gap, which, being bigger than the supplied charger, adds more gubbins to carry around.

Tedious also because the batteries are fairly useless. I think that the earliest FT-817s had nickle cadmium batteries, but by the time I got mine they had switched to nickle metal hydride, better but still to be stored in the bull crap drawer. At the same time,. Yaesu were selling the VX type of handheld for FM with a vastly better lithium battery. I suspect that as the VX series had Standard-Vertex parentage, whilst the FT-817 was from pure Yaesu stock, and nobody at Yaesu thought of it. Whatever, the charger/battery guddle is probably the Yaesu FT-817s biggest drawback for a radio you want to pick up and go with.

So there are a whole series of things which I have felt obliged to correct or add to the basic rig to make it suitable for me. Some might say, that is fine, as why should everybody pay for what you need when they can customise it to suit themselves? Hey, if I had nothing to gripe about there would be no point blogging, and society would be the poorer for not having my thoughtful prose.

Never mind what it doesn't do, what does it do? Pretty much everything, if in a rather moderate fashion. TX on all the HF bands, plus 6m, 2m and 70cms. FM, SSB, (AM after a fashion) and data (analogue out), at up to 5 watts and down to flea power (I do like running 1 mW on data). What it can do is brilliant if you are happy with all the drawbacks. A big drawback is having to squint at the tiny screen for Yaesu's dorky menu system. If you don't mind prodding tiny buttons and scrolling through tons of options to switch from the back to the front antenna socket, or likewise for changing the control working RF-Gain to Squelch (which is infuriating when you change from SSB to FM) it simply has no rivals. The general coverage receiver makes the FT-817 a really useful tool on holiday.

Now by this stage somebody somewhere will be reminding me of the Flex 1500 or pointing out the Elecraft something or other. Well, not for me as they do not meet my needs. I do lots of things but I also do VHF (remember that?), and for all that in one box it is terrific. OK, I have to peer at the tiny screen like Mr Magoo, but it is worth it.
Mr Magoo and McBarker - Wikipedia low resolution screenshot for illustrative purposes
Me like Mr Magoo? For those of a younger disposition Mr. Magoo is a wealthy, short-statured retiree who gets into a series of comical situations as a result of his extreme near-sightedness, compounded by his stubborn refusal to admit the problem. However, through uncanny streaks of luck, the situation always seems to work itself out for him, leaving him no worse than before.

Affected people (or animals) consequently tend to think that he is a lunatic, rather than just being nearsighted.

This is not like me, because I am often left in a worse situation than before. As for the rest of that description, well, maybe. Not the hat though.

Leslie Nielsen, that wonderful and much missed actor who made such a splendid job of Police Squad (in color) on the television, made such a mess of playing Mr Magoo in the film. Stick to the cartoon versions if you want to do more research into Mr Magoo. The film was a dud.

Anyway, word is trickling out about a replacement for the Yaesu FT-817. The latest story is that Yaesu have applied for FCC approval in the United States for a rig called the FT-818. The details are scant (we are told) because Yaesu applied for confidentiality --- as you might expect. The release date is expected to be around August but it make take some time to reach the shops.

Razvan, M0HZH, covers the latest news of the "FT-818"on his good blog which you find here.

To sum up though, Razvan's posting on another site just about gets the whole thing in a nutshell:-

Basically, it looks like a disappointing mild refresh of the FT-817 ... still superheterodyne and no 70MHz band. Hopefully they added stuff like LiPo battery, IF-DSP and a decent size screen.

Exactly correct. The key clue is what purports to be the certification panel.
Supposedly, this is information supplied to the FCC regarding the FT-818 (as always click to enlarge).
Would I be tempted by an FT-818 based on this? Well, maybe this is all a spoof and there is no FT-818. However, if there is I am greatly disappointed that it is still a superhet. Thus it will almost certainly have Yaesu's stock 69MHz IF, making it unsuitable for 4m coverage. It REALLY needs a lithium battery, a better screen and IF-DSP. It REALLY needs 10 watts peak output on SSB which a good lithium battery should permit, plus a proper charger. It REALLY needs a USB socket for CAT and digital audio, better frequency stability as standard and better filtering (which would all be easier if it was an SDR, which it seems it is not).

So if this turns out to be true, I doubt if an FT-818 would attract me unless it has all or most of those features. And frankly it is hard to see how it would fit into Yaesu's model range if it did have all that. At present at £530 it sits comfortably below the FT-857D at £690. The FT-857 has several of the things I would want from an FT-818, apart from the size and battery. They can hardly load the FT-818 up with more features than the FT-857 and still charge less for it. At £530 the old FT-817 is already discounted because it is really an antique design, but can Yaesu charge much more for a breathed-over superhet? And is it not part of the economics that the 817 was a stripped down 857 anyway?

Why would anybody make up a story about new FT-818? Well, it has been done before.

A few years ago there was a spoof news article circulating (on Sparky's blog?) about an SDR replacement for the FT-817 with coverage down to VLF and including 70MHz and 1,296MHz. It did not take much of a genius to realise that this was not genuine as it had a picture of the device below which was an FT-817 with an IC-7000 display Photshopped onto the front ... nice try but really ...
Not the FT-817 replacement, but if only it had been ???
Several years have passed since that bit of fake news. My FT-817 still works away as my holiday rig and from home as my perpetual 10m WSPR beacon.

So I think that the Yaesu FT-817 is a very limited rig on many fronts, but it has no equal when it comes to working both HF and VHF from hotel rooms and caravans. I have formed this opinion after years of adding outboard boxes and internal necessities. It fails many tests and yet I cannot be without it. It seems like Yaesu's policy is to stick with superhets and simply give it a re-vamp as the FT-818. The FT-818 would need to have a lot of extra features to win me over, and then it would appear to be creeping into the price range of other rigs in the Yaesu line-up.

I suspect that my FT-817 will be seeing a few more airport scanners (and the ones at St Pancras International railway station) before it finally gets retired.




Friday, 2 February 2018

On being a VHF radio amateur

I like meeting other radio amateurs. It is good to swap experiences. I like to ask questions about things which I am unsure about. I like to learn.

However, I have a hurdle to get over before we can exchange views.

As soon as I say "I do VHF" they go cold. It is as if it suddenly started to snow. Their faces descend into a crumpled frown. That frown shows incomprehension and pity. I see them think "How can he do THAT?" "What is THAT anyway?"

I know what they are thinking. Being paranoid helps with the translation.

Sometimes, to excuse their ignorance they will smile and say "Oh, I do VHF too", which turns out to mean that they have a quarter wave vertical for 144MHz. It is a mobile whip on a magnetic base, stuck on a tea tray, and they use that to listen (not actually speak) on their local repeater. Don't we all do that by having a (hopefully better) set-up for local chats? In my book this is not really "doing VHF".

I spent a long time once explaining to fairly recent amateur that it is possible to use SSB and data modes on VHF. "But I thought VHF was for FM only" he said, even though he had recently passed his exams.
SSB on VHF - who'd 'ave thought it?
Now I have no problem with people who concentrate on a specific part of the hobby. Why not be an 80 metre band enthusiast, or a CW only operator, or a data mode only person? They are quite entitled to do that. Even if somebody wanted to do RTTY only, which would be pretty strange given what an inefficient mode that is, then fair enough I say. Slow scan TV, APRS, PSK, entering direction finding competitions, satellites, construction, propagation studies ... there is room for all of them.

Despite my liberal (?) views, others seem to find the idea that I spend most of my time on VHF as being really strange. I try to engage them on their take on the hobby and we can talk fairly freely about that. However, they seem very reluctant to get onto my favourite topic. I think that they genuinely find it difficult to imagine what an amateur interested in VHF might do all day.

I might ask them about their antennas, or the grey line, or recent DX-peditions I have heard about, but they know nothing about my area of interest, and clearly don't want to ask. One or two of the older ones might have had VHF-only licences when they started out, but they only seem to be surprised that I have not yet grown out of VHF (as they said they had done).

Sometimes I can produce some details of the places I have worked for comparison. Somebody was proud to have worked Andorra recently. I said that I have worked it, but only on 70MHz - which closed the topic down. Likewise Liechtenstein, which I commented to another person that I had worked on 50MHz - he seemed unable to take in that I had worked his prized DXCC, but on VHF.

Let's get this straight. I do not do what I do to impress other amateurs. I do it because I love it and because I learn things. I could not care less about DXCCs or squares other than to set myself targets, and to show others that it can be done with modest equipment. I am qualified for various awards but I have never claimed them. I have never entered a contest, but I do sometimes go on to give points for others. I am not competitive in that sense. So I am not trying to big myself up - not that there is much point because these other amateurs are never going to be impressed. They simply do not understand what I am talking about.

I try to point out the VHF is a span of spectrum with different characteristics and challenges, not "a thing".

2 metre band (144 MHz)
I think that a lot of this comes from what limited experience these folk have of the 2 metre band. I have said here many times that 2m is not my favourite band. I had a long discussion with a recently qualified amateur pointing out that VHF propagation is not "line of sight" only. He was sure in his experience of 2m that this was so - but he had also been told it was true during his training. Taking the last year as a guide, my 2m performance has not been good, but that not many of these QSOs were "line of sight".
144MHz contacts at GM4FVM in the year to 29 January 2017 (excludes giving away contest points)
I do not enter my 2m contest contacts in this log, and there would be more UK contacts if I did. But, nevertheless, you can see my issue with 2m. I cannot get out due South, especially during tropo openings. The hills prevent me. And so this is constant refrain from many nay-sayers "VHF is no good from here because I am surrounded my mountains". Rubbish. If I can work Northern Sweden, Finland, Latvia and Ukraine from here, I am hardly entirely screened off. And neither are most people. For those who are in a worse position than me there is always satellite and Earth-Moon-Earth operation to try. And then there is the possibility of portable operation, which actually gets benefits from the same hills.

And then there is the old tale that VHF enthusiasts use the internet for their contacts. Grrr.

The contacts I make are all radio - radio between my shack and the other shack.

I am not against internet linking, but I view it rather like an advance over using FM to talk to the locals. It is a great way to contact like minded individuals. You might learn something setting it up, and you would definitely learn something if you set up a voice gateway or a linked repeater. But you might not learn a lot about propagation. It is your choice: so far it is not compulsory.

2m thrives on transient propagation methods, tropo, aurora and Sporadic E. There might be a couple of days each year when we have tropo and aurora here which results in good 2m contacts. There might be two or three hours of Sporadic E. Certainly you would do better with tropo and Es if you lived further South, but I live where I live. So, good as it is, 2m is not my favourite. But then there is plenty to do elsewhere.

I do feel that I could do a lot better if I cared for my 2m operation as much as I care for 4m and 6m. I mean, what does it say about me that I have a mast-head preamp on the antenna for my TV receiver and I not have a mast-head preamp on my 2m antenna. There are things that I would like do to improve my 2m operation.

So 2m tends to stick in the minds of many amateurs who feel that large antennas, expensive co-ax, preamps, etc., are needed for VHF and therefore it is not worth the trouble. I think that they mean not worth the trouble for 2m, but for most of them 2m and VHF mean the same thing. Nothing I can say seems able to convince them otherwise.

As always, you can click to enlarge the images I post here, on a PC anyway.
Start of a busy day on VHF at GM4FVM
More of the same busy day on VHF at GM4FVM

4 metre band (70MHz)
Moving on ... 4m is more my thing.
70MHz contacts at GM4FVM in year to 29 January 2018. I seem to have worked an Italian pirate (!).

Ah, four metres. If you live somewhere which does not have 4 metres then I feel sorry for you. True, it is mostly a European band, but then again there are a few African and Asian countries which have it. Not that I have worked into Asia, though I have been heard there. Looking at that map my initial reaction is annoyance - how did I manage to miss Greenland while there was a station on from there this year? That would be a new 4m continent for me. So you can see, 4m is a bit of a challenge.

Working new countries or even continents is not what all this is about for me. Sure, my current two continents might be fine, but there are two others on offer which I could easily work if the conditions were right. But that's the thing with 4. You are always straining at the edge of conditions.

I recall that my interest in 4m, and I guess VHF in general, started in May 1977 when I was driving home with my 70MHz AM Pye Cambridge in between the back seats of my Ford Escort. In fact, in Belfast I had just turned into Dundela Avenue at the side of the Wilgar Park football ground, home of the mighty Dundela FC (once holders of the Irish Cup).

You may gather from the detail that this event is etched into my memory. Suddenly the Cambridge sprang into life with The Song of the Volga Boatmen in Russian. This surprised me, as although I knew that VHF was not line of sight, I was not expecting this. It was probably from Kaliningrad, over 1400km from Strandtown. I was hooked.

The broadcast was distorted, of course, by being in wideband FM and my rig being AM. That didn't matter to me. How can this FM broadcast station be reaching my modest ex-taxi radio and its quarter wave whip? So I started to try to learn more about it. I guess that I had only a hazy idea about Sporadic E then, though I had been using it on 10 metres. There was no 6 metre band in most of Europe in those days, so I had no other VHF point of reference. Sure, 10m had Es for long periods, and 2m had it for fleeting moments, but what happened in between was a mystery to me.

I was entranced by VHF, but this was after I had been freed from having a VHF-only licence. Much is made of the "good old days" when new entrants to the hobby in the UK often took up "Class B" licences while they improved their morse. The Class B ticket gave them access to VHF and above, though many went no further than 2m FM and the new-fangled repeaters.

It is said that we were all the better from having to serve an apprenticeship on 2m. I doubt it. I can see the point in having frequency limitations on new licensees, who have to sit exams to progress. After all, other countries do that with some good reports about how it works. However, if the UK was to limit its Foundation licensees by band rather than power, then I would suggest that limited HF rights should come with VHF. Anyway, everybody has their own views on that one. Let's just say that being limited to 2m and above did not excite me, whereas as soon as I got on 4m I was on board.

I have since spent long hours listening to Eastern European broadcast stations around 70MHz. There are very few now compared to 1977. Large swathes of Eastern and Central Europe have moved away from using the OIRT band for broadcasting, allowing in many amateurs instead, in new countries let alone new arrivals from existing 4m countries.  So now I can hunt between the massive signals from the broadcasters to winkle out weak double skip from places like Greece, Bulgaria and Romania. This was unheard of until fairly recently.

It is at the edge of propagation that I feel most at home. Plucking out those weak double hops. Trying to plot via the Es maps on DXMaps as to where I might reach. The ones that got away - Sam Marino heard and not worked ("Don't worry, it will come back" - but it never has). Special stations in Sweden, heard on meteor scatter but never worked. Long, long meteor scatter contacts lasting hours. Struggling with the auroral noise to find swooshes of sound which just might be CW.

Magic.The magic of VHF.

For all the frustration I now count as friends a band of enthusiastic VHF regulars who keep calling CQ and listening into the night. These people are knowledgeable and capable radio amateurs who have been helpful in the extreme.

6 metre band (50MHz)
Some amateurs move up to 50MHz because it is easy to do - many HF radios cover this band. If you are used to HF antennas then 6m ones are relatively small. Despite this being easy to do, the proportion of those actually doing it is quite small. I suspect that many HF operators are expecting to find DX every day, which 6m does not provide. Me, I find any band which produces DX every day too boring.

The fact that only a small proportion of HF people graduate to 6m knocks a hole in the idea that lack of equipment is what prevents people from operating the VHF bands. This used to be trotted out about 4m too, but if you want to operate on these bands you will find the gear. If all else fails you could always build some, or at least assemble some modules.

Given that 6m has more DXCCs available than 4m, and paths are more consistent than 2m, you might expect that my contacts over a year would be more, and you would not be wrong.
50MHz contacts at GM4FVM in the year to 29 January 2018
There are several books on 6m operations. They usually have long sections showing QSL cards from small Pacific Islands and contacts to the Antipodes (the other side of the world from where you happen to be). I do think this is pointless. Such contacts are from history: they are not available to anyone as I write. Well, maybe if they do Earth-Moon-Earth, which is not easy on 6m and there are not many folks to work. No, the grand 6m days when you could work the world on a bit of wet string are over for now, and just as well in my book. If 6m was still in that situation I would not be on it.

There are those who bemoan the end of the great days at the peak of earlier sunspot cycles. Maybe, but we are where we are. The present situation in the solar cycle means that those days are in the past, and the next cycle is predicted to be similar to the last one - which brought no F2 propagation on 6m. Still, there is meteor scatter, aurora, and Sporadic E propagation, all accessible with modest antennas and simple stations. There are also some more unusual propagation modes like Trans Equatorial or Spread F but for these you need to be in the right place and usually have a top class station (which, like most of us mortals, I don't have).

You won't find accounts on this blog of hardy operators working from mud huts or from the Steppes of rare Asiatic DXCCs. That is because they are not around any more. Yet you still read books written by grizzled old timers who somehow or other imagine that we have something to learn from times when they had it easy. No Sir, these days we have it hard and we have to be content with what we get.

So, setting aside tales of marvellous times past, 6m these days is still a fine place to get your feet under the VHF table. When it comes to Es, 6m is a reliable provider and you can watch 10m as a guide as to when to hope for it. Auroral propagation tends to allow SSB QSOs, and meteor scatter is good (save between mid January and the end of March when MS conditions generally are poor). So what is not to like about 6m? Why do I get that baleful look from fellow amateurs when I say I do VHF? Why do I feel I have to justify myself so often?

One upside of 6m is that it provides the occasional opportunity to work multi-hop Es into far distant territories. So the chance of trans-Atlantic contacts keep me watching. Working into Africa is also possible from much of Europe, but I am a bit far north for that on a regular basis. Asia is also possible from here on multi-hop Es. On 4m these are very faint hopes, whereas on 6m at least this type of thing is possible but very difficult.

6m is not a world-wide band. I suppose that is one drawback. The only world-wide band on VHF is 2m, and as I have said, 2m looks tricky for HF operators. They draw from their experience of 2m FM. Plenty of others enjoy 2m FM and they have the right to do that, but they may miss everything else. For me 2m FM lacks a challenge, so the very difficulty of doing VHF SSB and data is what I like.

You do know I wear a hair shirt all day and sleep on a bed of nails at night.
A varied day on VHF at GM4FVM
So it comes down to this. I am like the Junkie always hoping that his next hit will be as good as that first hit which was what got him into drugs in the first place (how do you know all that, you old Hippy?). I can still remember the Song of the Volga Boatmen in 1977. And when for a time in 2010 I just had FM for 4m operations here, I remember working Ivan, S51DI, on 70.450. When a couple of weeks later I worked 5 OH stations also on 4m FM I thought to myself that 1900km on a taxi radio wasn't half bad. And my 4m FM experiences continue to amaze me, like working a totally gob-smacked Italian station on 70.300, and a station on a yacht in the Mediterranean off the coast of France. On VHF FM? Come on, be serious. But it was serious when it actually happened.

After all that, working Canada for the first time on 6m SSB felt pretty good in 2011. First time over the pond on VHF from here, and only as far as Newfoundland, but just 50 watts and an HB9CV. Not that trans-Atlantic QSOs are easy on VHF, but they do keep your interest up.

There are still plenty of challenges for me. On 6m these include the rather strange paths to Japan and China in the Spring which look like multi-hop Es. Then there are loads of DXCCs in the Caribbean, plus South America. On 4m pretty well everything is a surprise. For two metres I have done very little from this QTH, making everything novel there too. But working three new DXCCs in one crammed half hour of 2m Es last year was pretty good fun. So was working Belarus in similar circumstances in 2011.

The way the VHF bands suddenly open and surprise me are now "Volga Boatmen" moments. Not that this brings back memories of the crackly Feodor Chaliapin recording, nor yet the superlative Paul Robeson one, nor even Glenn Miller version, but the unknown Russian choir I heard in East Belfast, through the filter of slope detected FM.

And these surprises happen quite often, but yet they still have the ability to take me unawares. On SSB I hear the surprised voice of someone who was not expecting to hear me. On data I get further than expected (Puerto Rico). On aurora, my rusty slow CW nets some country I would never work any other way (Faeroe Islands). Polar Es brought me a contact with Jan Mayen island on 6m, another one to treasure even if it is not that far away. One Sunday afternoon a station from The Azores rose out of nowhere on 4m for a memorable 2658km QSO. On 6m I heard my first Russian station (there are only a few), but he faded out - one for another day. Yet, like San Marino on 4m, maybe never again. Who knows?

It is nothing to do with equipment really. Yes, a better station might get further, but the joy for me is doing it the way I do. A bit slap-dash maybe, better than a long wire, but not quite a 20m tower and 5m boom antenna. Just a middling station riding the wave of propagation and sometimes getting lucky.

And as you all know, I am up all night to get lucky, or so somebody once said.
The strange thing is that I feel this need to explain myself. I do not seek to convert anyone to my way of working. They can go along their own path. But I guess I need to try to open a door for them into a world which they never visit. Maybe they will someday, and they they will not have to take pity on me when they hear that I "do VHF".



Sunday, 21 January 2018

The tyranny of default settings

The tyranny of default settings.

Sounds menacing, eh?

Not too much to report, apart from a perfectly predictable 10m Es opening on 19 January following an increase in solar activity. The K number rose to more than 4, as predicted four days earlier by NOAA and also two days earlier by Solarham. This duly produced this result:-
10m Es spots on WSPR at GM4FVM on 19 January 2018
10m Es opening in January at the bottom of the solar cycle - nothing unusual to report there then. I had hope for 20 January too, but the enhanced solar activity faded away.

I have confirmed what was limiting my PC performance when using multiple instances of MSK144 mode. It does seem to be a bandwidth thing as mentioned previously as a theory. I now need just one computer. So the back up computer has gone to the further reaches of the shack, despite all the fettling I did to it.

But what has been intriguing me recently has been strange behaviour amongst some amateurs who use the "wrong" settings for MSK. I have distinctly heard four stations using 30 second T/R intervals, one fairly local, but the others in the 750 to 1000km region. If I can hear these stations in both receiving segments then something pretty serious is wrong.

Always providing that my timing is correct, and I use Meinberg software for timing, then is just not be possible to hear the same station in successive receive segments, unless of course they were transmitting in both. Maybe their timing is wrong. Or maybe they are actually deliberately transmitting in both.

I checked my timing by running two sets of Meinberg on two computers, and verified with the Meinberg NTP monitor that both were functioning correctly. They both showed the same time even though they were synching with different hosts.

At least one of these stations is using 30 second intervals because I can see that they also have "Auto Seq" ticked. I can tell because they transmit for 30 seconds, and then if they get a reply, Auto Seq switches them to the other 30 second segment.

This is bizarre behaviour. They are losing 50% of their receive time, making QSOs on average twice as long. They are also occupying both segments, meaning that any station close to them might as well give up. And half of their transmissions will be lost for a DX station using the standard 15 second interval, causing another 50% loss and making any QSO next to impossible.

I have been pondering all this. Why do such a thing when it will only (at best) lengthen your QSOs, or (at worst) lead to many QSOs failing to complete? And it will annoy every other amateur in your area who will be unable to operate while you are on the air.

Then the penny dropped. The last time I downloaded WSJT-X it came with the default setting as "T/R 30 seconds" and "FTol 20". Of course I reset those to 15 seconds and 100, as the User Guide suggests. Perhaps these people are just using the default settings. Perhaps they never looked at the User Guide.

At this point I could don the cloak of the "Old Timer". I could point out that my enforced period as a Short Wave Listener taught me the benefit of listening first. If I had listened first it would immediately be clear to me that other stations were using 15 second intervals.

However, I think it goes deeper than that. My instinct when downloading WSJT-X is to explore it and find out more about it. Maybe other stations just accept the defaults and think no more about it.

OK, every so often every station gets it wrong and transmits on the wrong segment. The "Tx even/1st" button is small and it is easy to forget to change when you turn the antenna. But to use the 30 second T/R constantly is shooting yourself in the foot - you miss, on average, 50% of the replies. And the other station misses 50% of yours, leaving the statistics of randomness to condemn you to fail most of the time.

In between the times when these stations have been wiping both rx opportunities for me I have worked a few stations during the supposed "dead period" (early January to April) for meteor scatter.
VHF meteor scatter contacts at GM4FVM 9 to 21 January 2018
Meanwhile, the stations using 30 second periods seem to be calling CQ a lot, and not getting many replies.

I wonder why.
On a different tack, the issue about strength reports as opposed to meteor ping duration and number of pings has been mentioned elsewhere. Here is a nice clip from OZ1JXY Henning's 4m QSO of today today . Somehow my report of +03dB, although good, hardly goes far enough to describe this ...
That counts as quite a blast in this quiet period.
Enough from me, but for what it is worth I will post the relevant section from the WSJT-X User Guide which I doubt if anyone involved will read. Ah well.


To configure WSJT-X for MSK144 operation:
  • Select MSK144 from the Mode menu.
  • Select Fast from the Decode menu.
  • Set the audio receiving frequency to Rx 1500 Hz.
  • Set frequency tolerance to F Tol 100.
  • Set the T/R sequence duration to 15 s.
  • To match decoding depth to your computer’s capability, click Monitor (if it’s not already green) to start a receiving sequence. Observe the percentage figure displayed on the Receiving label in the Status Bar:
MSK144 Percent CPU
  • The displayed number (here 17%) indicates the fraction of available time being used for execution of the MSK144 real-time decoder. If this number is well below 100% you may increase the decoding depth from Fast to Normal or Deep, and increase F Tol from 100 to 200 Hz.
Most modern multi-core computers can easily handle the optimum parameters Deep and F Tol 200. Older and slower machines may not be able to keep up at these settings; at the Fast and Normal settings there will be a small loss in decoding capability (relative to Deep) for the weakest pings.
  • T/R sequences of 15 seconds or less requires selecting your transmitted messages very quickly. Check Auto Seq to have the computer make the necessary decisions automatically, based on the messages received.

Monday, 8 January 2018

Quadrantids meteor shower marks the end of the season?

3 January 2018 marked the peak of the Quadrantids meteor shower. The Quadrantids also mark a break in the procession of the main showers in the Northern Hemisphere until April.

At GM4FVM Quadrantids 2018 produced this result:-
VHF meteor scatter QSOs at GM4FVM 30 December 2017 to 8 January 2018

This year saw me working many of the usual stations, but it felt very different. Only one QSO was on 6m, the rest were evenly split between 4m and 2m. All were on MSK144 mode. This was the first year when I could call CQ on 2m MSK144 and get successful results.

For too long now 2m operators in Western Europe have been sticking with FSK441 mode. This time I watched PSK reporter carefully and I noticed several stations working into Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. As those Eastern stations were using MSK144, the people trying to work them had to use MSK144 as well. This gave me the opportunity to be heard, and it worked. If some people want to stick with FSK441 then that is their choice, but they are not going to work me.

I did hear stations from Belarus and Russia myself but I have never worked that far on meteor scatter (though I have worked Belarus on Sporadic E). I suspect that some of these stations run quite high power levels.

Perhaps I am beginning to find 6m meteor scatter "too easy". Well, not really, but when I call CQ I can see that I am heard by many stations but few answer. So maybe they find it too easy to work me, so they don't try. I find that on 2m there are fewer stations but a lot more of them are ready to reply and try to make a contact.

So that was a successful Quadrantids campaign to round off the VHF year.

I am still left wondering whether 10m would be any good for meteor scatter from here.

Between now and April there are still plenty of things which might happen. Random tropo and aurora events can be very good fun but they are impossible to predict until a day or two before they occur. There may be several or there may be none.

The NOAA 27 day Space Weather Outlook (which you can find here) suggests no recurrent auroral activity can be expected - or at least the test of Kp index over 5 is not predicted to be met in the 27 days from 8 January. However, this predictor only really lists recurring coronal holes; a solar flare could happen at any time, or not, as the case may be.

Meteor scatter will still work of course. Just because there are no major showers does not rule out taking advantage of minor showers or background meteor action.

Plus there could be some minor Sporadic E events.

I might try some Earth Moon Earth operation. More accurately I might try listening again. My station is not well suited to EME, but it might be worth trying. There is nothing to lose. I had an email from Gordon GM4OAS which has given me a nudge towards listening again.

I had a phone call from Keith, MM6KFE, asking for a test on the local 70cm repeater GB3BE. As I had no antenna I had to try to reach him on my £8 Baofeng hand held. Not a sophisticated rig and I ended up standing in the middle of the back garden in the rain. So I have relented as far putting a 2m dipole in the loft which works (badly) as a 3/4 wave dipole for 70cms. I have managed to work Keith on that so I am back on 2m and 70cms FM for now anyway. There followed contacts with Wallace, MM0AMV on BE and Paul GM0IQI on GB3DU. Active locals! Things are not as bad as they looked.

I am quite looking forward to a lull. This has been very eventful year.




Sunday, 31 December 2017

FT8 and the arrival of even more Christmas Es

Happy Hogmanay Everybody.

Storm Dylan is currently whipping round and about my masts, but apparently the weather forecast is that it will indeed be braw in Edinburgh at midnight tonight, and it may even be bracing for the Loony Dook in the waters of the Firth of Forth tomorrow.

I hope to stay dry and warm here.
It was only two days ago that I commented on the Christmas Es here.

Later on 29 December produced another fine 6m opening bringing the total Es picture in the week since Christmas to this:-
Es QSOs at GM4FVM 25 to 31 December 2017
This of course excludes meteor scatter and 10m WSPR which are usually my stalwarts at this time of year, and is only up to 13:00 on the 31st. There were more stations available to work but I have to live you know! Life outside radio goes on.

What strikes me is the difference from the same period last year
Es QSOs at GM4FVM 25 to 31 December 2016
In fact, all the QSOs last year were on one day in an opening which lasted an hour.

Natural variation? Probably.

It is called Sporadic E for a reason.

However, it is worth just thinking about what has changed since last year.

All my 2017 Es QSOs were made using the FT8.  During the same period in 2016 FT8 was not available, so two were on SSB and the rest on JT65.

This year the openings have lasted 27 hours.

Could the arrival of FT8 have made a difference?

My posting on 21 September, here, sets out a possible mechanism suggesting how some data modes can transform a marginal situation into a QSO-feast. It could not open a closed band, but it could make just enough difference to achieve QSOs.

But surely I was using a data mode (JT65) in 2016? True, but not so many others were. FT8 has developed a "cult following". Also, although FT8 is theoretically less efficient that JT65, FT8 harbours a major advantage in these marginal conditions. By using FT8 you can complete a QSO between two and four times faster than on JT65. In rapidly fading periods this makes all the difference between finishing a QSO and not making it. I did not record the times in 2016 when I got only one over from the other station, but I know it happened a lot with JT65.

There is not enough evidence to draw any conclusion yet. We need many periods of observation for comparison, but there might be something in this. On the other hand, the fanatical take-up of FT8 will no doubt decline as its newness wears off.

There is no doubt either that the availability of stations at the far end of a QSO often has more influence on the QSO count than the conditions. So perhaps this is just a storm in a teacup, driven by a few articles about FT8.

On the other hand I did notice that a lot of the stations I worked were callsigns already in the log. I had worked them, usually in the Summer, in various years. In 2016 I worked them on JT9, in 2014 on JT65, in 2013 on PSK .... anyway, they were regulars and not people drawn into 6m data after a burst of publicity following the launch of FT8.

I also rather absent mindedly clipped a page out of the 6m DX-cluster for 29 December. There are 37 Es QSOs recorded in 28 minutes, 27 on FT8, 8 on CW and 2 on SSB. Is it just that FT8 is more popular, or could it (and CW of course) just be better at producing QSOs than SSB? Not enough evidence to tell yet, but I think it is worth considering.

When I started using data modes (in the 1970s) they were viewed as a (rather poor) substitute for SSB, not something measurably better. I need to recalibrate my thoughts on this.

Right I am off to browse through my log book.

Before anybody asks, here is the map for the same period 2015 when I was using JT65 and JT9 ...
Es QSOs at GM4FVM 25 to 31 December 2015

I might not get too much time to browse as there is a slight uptick in geomagnetic activity predicted for 1 January, round about the same time as the Quadrantid and Ursids meteor showers usually keep me busy.

Have a great New Year.



Friday, 29 December 2017

A little Christmas propagation present

Before I start, I went out on what is called "Boxing Day" round here (also "St Stephen's Day" or just 26 December), and I was unable to lower my Tennamast. The mast holding up the 2m and 4m antennas had frozen in the raised position thanks to a heavy frost. My usual trick is to shake the upper section of the mast to break the frost but it was frozen solid. So it just had to stay up all night. Lucky thing.

As compensation I took some photos of it
2m and 4m antennas at GM4FVM on 26 December 2017
If you click on the image to enlarge it you can see a faint star pattern behind it. There is no need to contact me once you have worked out what aspect that is, because it is not the shot I was after.

I did think that I had taken a better one than that. I wanted to show the antennas with Orion in the sky behind them and that worked quite well on that particular night. Sadly during the long exposure there was some vibration in the tripod so it did not turn out very well once I came indoors and looked carefully at the results. It is a pity as I had managed to get Alnitak and Alnilam on one side of the 4m boom, with Mintaka on the other side of the boom, but they are shown as elongated lines in the final photo. So this one will have to do.

Ah well, Orion's belt is for another day.

Or rather it is for another night.
In my last posting on 24 December I suggested that it would be worth looking out for "Christmas Es" until early January.

Unusually, Christmas Es decided to make a showing near to Christmas this year.
10m WSPR spots at GM4FVM on 26 December 2017
Even more unusually, I went on 10m and actually worked a few stations ...
10m contacts (all FT8) at GM4FVM  on 26 December 2017
Then 6m opened and I turned to that band:-
6m Es (FT8) contacts at GM4FVM on 26 December 2017
Thinking that this could not last, 27 December produced even more 10m Es WSPR spots:-
10m WSPR spots at GM4FVM on 27 December 2017
.. and then even more 6m FT8 contacts:-
6m Es contacts at GM4FVM on 27 December 2017
Now it is grand to leave WSPR running and just observe the spots, but that map shows real contacts, all of which were logged. Eventually after a few hours I got "brain fade" and I stopped an hour before the opening ended. Not bad though for December Es, something that many amateurs ignore completely.

And of course, being a reasonable time for meteor scatter I have been there too...
Meteor scatter contacts at GM4FVM 22 to 29 December 2017
I would have been happy enough with those contacts if the Es had not occurred at all (OY being a new country on 6m, although I have worked it on all the other bands I use).

Nothing at all was heard on 4m (so there was no point putting up the mast for it just to get frozen).

The openings were very long - on 26 December 09:28 to 19:38, and on 27 December from 11:32 to 18:26. So my comment about these openings being short and localised was proved to be rubbish this year (so far). Well they usually are ... honestly.

OK, I was wrong.

So was it all worth it? It proves that in my business you can never let your attention waver or you miss things. New DXCC, new squares ... but the brain fade was a problem. Having let Katy the shack cat out into the garden, I got so caught up in the action that I forgot to let her in again. In weather cold enough to freeze an antenna mast she was not happy. I had to bribe her with a tin of tuna. But apart from that, yes, I think so.

Adding all the contacts since Christmas together (excluding WSPR of course) looks like this:-
All contacts at GM4FVM 25 to 29 December 2017
Frankly I am shattered by all this activity. But I did enjoy it!

Whilst the next couple of weeks promise more meteor scatter and maybe some more Es, a long winter lies ahead. So work them while they are there.

Might be a good winter good for photographing the stars though.



Sunday, 24 December 2017

Merry Christmas, more noise and some updates

First of all, have a great Christmas. If you don't celebrate the religious festival then have a good cultural Christmas. You might as well because there is no way of avoiding it, wherever you are.

Frankly, I find the cultural Christmas a bit of a pain. The main problem for me is that it starts in October. Then there is all sorts of goo-gorey-ness, trivia and general wasteful marketing of things which destroy the planet's resources for little benefit.

For me, this time of year is a time for reflecting. And for me this year it has definitely been about reflecting on those less well off than myself. Less well off in every sense, including health, fitness, wealth and also for those who feel excluded from society. This can be a very lonely and frightening time for many people.

Have a good time and be like me - do not over-indulge.
Thanks to several people for your emails, posts and comments over the air.

Particularly motivating were messages from Thomas OV3T and Geoff G0LUJ.

I think I have done my home-spun noise solutions to death on this blog, be here goes again.

Thomas replied to an earlier post about WSJT-X. I could not get WSJT-X to work well with my computers, and especially if I tried to use multiple instances of the software. I had not really written that piece very well, as it looked like I could not get multiple instances to work, but actually what I meant to say was that my computers are not able to process MSK quickly enough - other WSJT-X modes are fine. This seems to apply particularly to AMD processors.

As Thomas has raised the subject, I set to thinking more about it. I certainly do have a faster computer. Although it also has an AMD processor, it is an eight core and quite fast. The problem with it is that it makes a lot of noise, especially on the 2 metre band. In the past I have tried and rejected it as it simply swamps my 2m receiver with hash.

Geoff has also been tackling noise. As well as everything else, he has started a blog - here. Reading Geoff's thoughts set me to work. I decided to install the faster computer and just deal with the noise.

I do like a challenge. I have looked at this machine several times, and each time it produced enough noise to render 2m impossible to use. Here we go again.

After a lot of tinkering, including disconnecting every peripheral device, and removing most of the plug-in boards, I drew a blank. The faster computer was adding a good 20dB to the noise. Then I tried disconnecting the case fans - and the S-meter fell by 12dB.
The rogue computer case fan
There are two case fans, the one at the front does not seem so bad but I have left it disconnected for now. The rear one was making a nasty chopping noise and I  have removed it. It had been running continuously while the PC was running. I have replaced it with a new Arctic Fan Pro temperature controlled fan with a screened lead. The speed varies with the temperature detected by the fan's temperature sensor.

Moving on I found that most of the remaining noise seemed to be coming from the SVGA display lead - which oddly enough was on the previous computer too. Much more tinkering, with moving over to a DVI lead, eventually proved that the noise was coming principally straight off the Asus display board's plugs. So out came the display board and it was swapped with the one on my "Office" computer (which has an Intel processor and which runs only the IC-7300). The Office computer has an on-board display driver and, while it was not quite as good as the separate board, it can manage without a dedicated display board for now.
The dusty rogue display board (with original fitted fan).
This Asus display board is one of two I have - both the same model but the later one came without a fan. It just has a bigger heat sink and the label "High EMC Protection". The one I swapped over is a cheap generic one with no fan and it seems quiet. I do have one application where the fan-equipped board is useful because it has a low profile form factor and can fit in smaller PC boxes. It is banished from the shack though.

The result was another drop of 6dB on the S-meter. With a more normal amount of pre-amplification than I regularly use the S meter is at zero all the time, unless there is a signal on 2m SSB, which is a rare thing these days.

So I am almost there. I can still detect on 2m if this faster computer is in use. The difference is now small enough to work people. You can never have perfection.

The faster computer now drives WSJX-X or MSHV on my FT-817, TS-590 and IC-7100. It is vastly better than the slower 4 core computer. Two instances of MSK144 at the highest settings still shortens the trace by about half a second. However, I generally do not use the highest settings, preferring normal decode and FTol set to 100.

Typically I would run WSPR on 10m, and listen on MSK144 on both 2m and 6m. That is perfectly possible now if I use MSHV for 2m.

The point of all this is to reinforce the idea I put forward in previous postings. The solution to most of my noise problems lies in the shack. Sure, at Christmas there is a lot of noise from down the street, where one house is covered with flashing LED icicles. Most of this internal noise can be cured, and after Christmas I hope the festive lights will come down.

A basic desk top PC has a box which forms a large Faraday cage. This is pretty effective at keeping noise inside the case. It is the cables and plugs that seem to let the noise out. The case fan is beside several holes but I think that the reason for that problem was simple - it was just awfully noisy. And the display board was connected to a long cable to carry its fan noise out of the box.

Although the computer case is fairly effective, the front USB sockets, the front audio sockets and any fans mounted in the front will be fed by cables passing outside the metal case. The sockets are usually mounted on a plastic front panel. In my example, the simple twisted pair wires cross the void and feed to the USB sockets. This could be a big problem. Whether it is the sockets or the cable is not clear, but a simple solution is present - I don't use the front sockets unless it is for a very short term hook up.

So I have managed to improve things a bit and avoid buying a better PC by tackling the noise. I have another set of rear USB sockets to fit to the fast computer but I am not sure if it is worth it right now. I have the box nicely sealed up and noise-tight. Maybe I should just leave things as they are.

I am pretty sure that the snag remains that AMD processors (or at least those of my vintage) are not very good at handling WSJT-X. I doubt if this is a plot, but probably WSJT-X was designed to work on Intels simply because those designing it used Intels. And they probably did not do much with two instances of MSK144. Anyway, I have saved a few bob here by silencing and using an otherwise good computer.
There is not much to report on the radio front as I have been pretty busy with other things. However there have been a few good Es openings on 10m, associated with increased solar activity. I will not go into all the details, but here is one example
28Mhz Es spots on WSPR on 9 December 2017
There is no doubt that these openings are limited geographically (though 10m WSPR coverage is not well spread out in Europe so it is difficult to be sure). They are also usually short. I enjoy them though.

There was also a 6m Es event which did not extend beyond Central Europe to reach me. This was not associated with any solar activity that I could find and I think this was a "Christmas Es" event. There may be more - it is worth watching 6m from now until the middle of January. Christmas Es events can be very good indeed, if you can catch them.

I continue to use 4m meteor scatter regularly. My contact tally with Henning, OZ1JXY, has now reached 70 on meteor scatter alone, which proves that this is a really effective day-to-day method of propagation. Then again, a nice contact with Fred, G4BWP, adds another station to the list I have worked via Es, aurora, tropo and meteor scatter, on SSB, CW and data. That list, of multiple contacts in multiple modes via multiple propagation methods continues to grow, showing how many aspects of this hobby are available.

Thanks to both Richard GI4DOH and David GM4JJJ for alerting me to an article in QST about Es. I have to say that this was one of the least scientifically sensible articles I have read for some time (back in fact to the very dodgy ideas about jet streams). For any theory to stand up it needs to show a mechanism causes the event, not is merely vaguely associated with it. This latest article was (mostly) very wide of the mark.

For some reason I do not understand, people are perfectly happy to associate the variabilities in the D and F layer with solar events and the diurnal and solar cycles. The same goes for E-layer events in general. But when it comes to Sporadic E there seems to be a need to associate those events with storms and winds. Here's a clue which they might like to follow up before charging into print with their scrappy ideas - storms and winds are down here, the Sporadic E is 100km up in the sky. And there is another ionised layer (the D layer) to pass through on the way.

Also, the absence or presence of an amateur signal has got more to do with whether there is anybody there to send it than anything else. An elaborate explanation of why I hear more Es to the South East than to the South West could be worked out, but then in one direction I have Italy, and in the other direction I have the Atlantic Ocean. I suspect that there are more operators in Italy than in the middle of the Atlantic. Something to think about?

It is a pity because that QST article did touch on a few important issues which get very little attention - for example variation in the Earth's magnetic field. This is often associated (carefully chosen word there) with variations in the Earth's crust, especially at Earthquake and subduction zones. Someone comparing the magnetic field and the incidence of Es might be able to write an interesting article. But any such article would need to take account of the fact that more than half the world's amateurs do not have access to 6m, and that activity in the countries which do have the band varies enormously.

Also, and here is a thing somebody should consider before someone rushes into print - sometimes it is night and those funny foreign people don't come on so much after they go to bed, even when it is daytime here.

I have been reading some interesting stuff. Research has suggested a link between thunderstorms on Earth and cosmic ray bursts. This needs more investigation, but you can see that the chain of ionisation down through the ionosphere could indeed bring many lower energy particles down into the weather zone and have some effect.

Even more surprising was a piece on the BBC "Inside Science" programme which explained that two independent groups of researchers had found evidence of atom splitting in high-intensity thunderstorms. These strong storms are rare, but the effect may be similar but weaker in everyday thunder storms. They found not only that the strong electric fields and currents cause ionisation (which we knew from the lightening), but also they could be strong enough to create X-Rays and Gamma rays, which in turn create isotopes of surrounding atmospheric atoms. Indeed, not only did this split atoms, but they found evidence of positrons. Anti-matter made in thunderstorms (admittedly very powerful storms).

Phew. Long lasting isotopes (with half-lives in the tens of minutes) and anti-matter created by nature on Earth. These storm events are very powerful so perhaps I should not be surprised, but I am.

All this is pretty amazing stuff. I have grave doubts about the simple linkages suggested by people between weather and Sporadic E. OK, they might share the same basic source, such as the first research into cosmic rays suggests (though this is still fairly far-fetched). But the second piece of research prompts me to accept that another linkage is possible, that thunderstorms could create high energy particles which could well travel towards the ionosphere. Maybe in less energetic storms this could play a part too. I doubt it.

I am not about to rush off and write an article which links the variation in Es events to thunderstorms, based on these ideas. That is because they probably don't cause Es. I do wish that we were not regularly subjected to the "I got up one summer, looked out at the roses, and realised that rose flowering and Es are related"-type articles. Yes, roses and Es share the times of their incidence. But that does not mean they are linked by the rose perfume rising up to the E layer and activating the ions.

Hey, maybe I could get some payment for an article based on just that.

The way that science progresses is for people to be proved wrong when better theories appear. I may be proved wrong. That is fine with me. But where are those better theories? All I see are ideas that might come from the brain of Professor Frink in The Simpsons.
Again, please enjoy your Christmas.

Activity is usually up around Christmas. Must be due to the roses.