Thursday, July 31, 2014

Ham Radio Question and Answer on StackExchange

There is a great little Ham Radio community just getting started at

If you are a programmer, you know about, a site that is absolutely wonderful for asking and answering questions about programming.  Well, there's now a StackExchange site for everything under the sun.  Math?   Check. Science Fiction. Check.   Ham Radio? Of course!

Check it out.  here's a question I asked yesterday:

How can I get adequate lightning protection for my G5RV or dipole sloped antenna?

The answer was not what I expected. I thought that perhaps multiple ground paths, including a lighting rod would help.   One of the answers even has a nice circuit diagram drawn up on the spot by the person answering.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

My first real QSOs. Very fine business.

I made some more of my first real QSOs where you either call CQ or you answer someone's CQ.  I've now made a few on 20 meters, 40 meters, and one on 15 meters.   I've talked to a couple folks in Bulgaria, a couple in Russia, one guy in Guam, and a couple around North America.

Tonight I talked to two nice guys from Texas, one near Dallas/Fort Worth, and one near Santa Fe.  I really enjoyed talking to these guys because they weren't just "59, thanks for the QSO, 73s", we actually chatted a bit, and talked for a few minutes.  The second one was over half an hour.  I quite like longer QSOs, rather than the short hurried ones. I like it if someone asks a question or two and if I ask a question or two, and we can politely get to know a bit about each other's interests, lives, and activities, either within or outside of the hobby.

Part of the "Amateur Code" that I like very much and intend very much to honor is that I don't think that On The Air QSOs are a good place for "ranting", or intemperate or intolerant behaviour.  Courtesy rules.   I like getting on the air and engaging in a courteous QSO.   It may seem like a remnant of a by-gone era.  Courtesy still rules, around here, and I'm glad it's popular in the hobby.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

ITAR: International Traffice in Arms Regulations (US) that threatens US Amateurs who engage in Satellite design projects, may be relaxed

Did you know that until now, satellites were weapons, under an important US law, and that Amateurs working with other Amateurs around the world could go to jail or face six figure fines for working collaboratively with other Amateurs on Amateur Satellite projects?

I only heard about this because of an article on which mentions the easing of these restrictions.

The American law International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) classified all satellites, even amateur radio ones, as being in effect, a weapon.   

The fear that this kind of law is built upon is not hard to understand. Remember sputnik? The USSR launched a tiny radio beacon into space, and the space-race was on.   America lost the "first satellite" and "first astronaut in orbit" races, but I'd say they have lots of later victories to salve the wound. It's odd that in 2014, as a law that seems rather touched by a cold-war mentality may now be relaxed, and yet, as we watch the world around us, and the aggressive expansion by the Russian Federation into Crimea is also in the news, and Putin seems committed to reviving the USSR, a bit at a time, I wonder if the cold war may be coming back our way.

It's a strange, strange world we live in.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Happy 100th Birthday to the ARRL.

Today is exactly the 100th birthday of the ARRL, the world's first national level organization dedicated to advancing the art, science, hobby, and public service aspects of Amateur Radio, founded on this day, 100 years ago.  It was not the first local amateur radio club, or even probably the first regional amateur radio association, but it was certainly an important force in the creation and preservation of what we today know as the Amateur Radio hobby, and its early executive members were pretty important in the formation of the international IARU, and in representing Amateur interests at the ITU, and before the FCC.  If there were no Amateur Bands in the USA, there wouldn't be the hobby that the rest of us, out here in Canada, and in Europe, and around the world, enjoy today.

Now I know not everybody is a big fan of the ARRL. The late Wayne Green, founder and editor of "73" magazine was a famous provocateur in his editorial columns, often coming out against the ARRL whenever he could, at any angle he could manage, most often, if my reading is correct, in the 1960s and 1970s, when, according to many old-time Hams I've conversed with, the ARRL was in a bit of a rut.  You could say, that a kick in the pants is still a step forward, and that the ARRL's critics have helped make the ARRL a better place.  So thanks, Wayne, for your little part in that.

I joined the ARRL when I got my license, even though I'm a Canadian, 90% because I like the QST magazine.  I also subscribe to CQ magazine, which is the other major Ham magazine. I read both magazines online.   I got a free membership in RAC when I got my license for one year, and I'll probably renew that membership too. I think organizations like RAC (in Canada) and ARRL (in the USA) are an important part of keeping the hobby ticking over well, fighting against RFI and spectrum licensing encroachments on ham bands,  and representing amateur opinions and ideas at the legislative table.   We live in a society governed by laws, and shared resources like the RF spectrum are not going to be carved up endlessly in our favor if we don't organize ourselves and represent ourselves and put our best foot forward. No matter how much you like or don't like the ARRL, consider that a healthy ARRL is the most powerful organization of hams in the world, and that by in-fighting, bickering, and complaining, you're only shooting yourself in your own foot.  So enough of considering the critics.  Be off with ye.  Back to the Happy Birthday bit.

Here are my top five favorite ARRL things;

1. QST, my favorite place to find project ideas, product reviews, and other stuff like that.

2. The 2014 edition of the Amateur Handbook, is a special centennial edition, and is perhaps the best (and heaviest) edition I've seen yet. It's getting to be more an Encyclopaedia than a Handbook, but that's a nice problem to have, in my opinion.

3. The Antenna book.   I've only read a loaned copy, haven't bought my own yet, but this is next on my to-acquire list of cool things that I've seen from the ARRL.

4. The large membership base gives it a voice at the table not just in the USA but around the world.  This benefits me (here in Canada) and you, wherever you are, if you care about this hobby.

5. It's been a long, strange trip. I'm a History buff, I'm interested in the History of Everything and I like the historical record that the ARRL has provided. An Elmer (mentor) loaned me a bound volume of QST magazines from 1976, which I have been enjoying looking through.  In 1976 people were buying channelized 2 meter FM rigs with plug-in crystals.   Collins was still around as a brand-name belonging to Rockwell, which was in turn acquired by Motorola.  There was very little evidence in 1976 that the microcomputer revolution was having any effect on the ham radio world, other than that HAL Communications Company would sell you an Intel 8080 single-board computer, if you wanted one.  I like the old ads for Collins transceivers,because this is an ad for a rig that has the very finest 1950s tech slightly warmed over for 1976, but with zero effort to even be up to date for 1976.  Did Collins ever fit an internal LCD frequency display to one of their rigs? I'd like to see it, if they did.  

Happy birthday, ARRL!

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Heathkit tube powered multimeter

I got a heathkit two tube multimeter, which has a lovely simpson analog meter and two tubes inside. It tickles me to no end that this thing is still ticking over beautifully but that the five or so multimeters I have owned until now, digital no-name units one and all, have died various ignominious deaths.

Here is an internal view of the tubular goodness inside....

That Duracell just went in there today replacing a Mallory cell from the 70s.

The sticker on the battery says someone paid 35 cents for this at Eatons.  

A network of resistors on a multiplanar rotary dial switch forms the heart of the instrument. I imagine a father and son building this in a basment in East York circa 1965 then going to the corner store for a cold bottle of Coca Cola in the original glass bottles.

A sense of accomplishment, a father son bonding moment. A feeling that you have in your hands an instrument, a means of measurement, a suitable trusty bit of kit for any radio or TV repairman.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Building an SDR Kit Project: The Lil Pup build, by PARC Homebrew

One of the reasons why I was interested in the Ham Radio Hobby is because of the strong "homebrew" contingent within the hobby. I just like it when people will fire up their brains, and their soldering irons, and build stuff.  And I want to learn how to do that too.  A good step towards that goal is to start doing kit builds, and to practice and improve my soldering skills, along with my ability to read and understand some fairly simple circuit schematics, and test and diagnose problems if my build goes awry.

I signed up for a BuildAThon day with the Peel Amateur Radio Club (PARC), who are a really fun bunch of folks. I joined the PARC club, paid my dues, and signed up for a slot at the buildathon day. I obtained a soldering station, two actually, used, at a low price.  I bought all the items on the "suggested things to bring" list, and I showed up at the buildathon day.

I have to take a moment to express my gratitude to the wonderful folks who put this build together. Here is a quick list of the kind of jobs that go into this kind of build:

* Select a project that is interesting enough, but not too difficult for your group (They hit this one out of the park in my opinion: Build an HF SDR? How cool is that!)

* Obtain all the parts and put together the kits (This was done very very well)

* Write the documentation  (This part was done amazingly well)

* Obtain the necessary shared equipment, in this case, a reflow oven, a drill press, test equipment, and extra soldering stations.

This is all done by volunteers. This is why Amateur Radio Clubs are so great.  I'm so impressed by the HomeBrew group within the club, and with the PARC club all around. Well done, gentlemen, well done.

Anyways,  here's a picture of me, and a picture of My Thing Which I Built, and I Think Is Really Neat-O:

Here is a close up of the board, which is populated with surface mount coils, resistors, capacitors, one RF mixer IC, a 155 mhz oscillator, a voltage regulator, and a couple of diodes:

Underneath the board you can see is a small pre-made assembly which is the inside of an "RTL-SDR dongle", the 50 mhz to 1.2 ghz SDR "brains" of the operation. The green board on top is an upconverter that slides a segment of the RF spectrum from 1 to 80 mhz up to 125 mhz where the Realtek RTL-SDR chip can 'see' it.

The upconverter design is an open hardware design from, and the design was modified, and placed in a cool "Altoids tin" which, when closed up, makes a nice little enclosure.   I am a big fan of ersatz kit enclosures, whether they be mint tins, or tuna tins, or what have you.

I don't think I could have built this kind of kit, even if I purchased the board and the components in a big bag of stuff. I had a little trouble with the reflow, the oven didn't really get hot enough and there wasn't enough solder/paste on the right side of the board, so I needed a bit of help from a more experienced solderer to rework the right side of the board. You can see there is more solder over there because it was hand-soldered, whereas the left side seems to have reflowed properly.

This is big fun, people, I highly recommend kit building, especially "kit building as a team sport". This was a really fun day, and I am now highly motivated to go try building a few kits on my own time, now that I've had a taste of kit-building success.  The best part? My little radio works. There will be a post or two later when I've figured out enough software stuff to be able to show something new. I have some ideas, and since I'm a pretty able software developer, I think I might be able to do some nifty stuff with this little rig.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Hobby Metric: Big Grins Per Day (BGPD)

I'm sitting here listening in and chiming in now and then, on 40 meters.  I have a big grin on my face, and a microphone in my hand, and an HF rig warming up the room.  This is really big fun. This is why I got into this hobby in the first place.  I like radios. I like people.  Bingo.

I went to another hamfest today, and got a Signalink (Sound card interface) and tonight I made my first PSK (digital) contact, using PSK63, which is similar to PSK31 but wider bandwidth, using FLDIGI.
If you don't know what those are, and you're interested, Google it.   There are some great youtube videos introducing Signalink, PSK modes, and the FLDIGI program.

This is REALLY awesome. I'm grinning from ear to ear.