When All Else Fails

The ability of Amateur Radio to continue to function in the absolute collapse of societal infrastructure continues to amaze.

With more extreme weather (It’s -20 C here right now. It’s +40 C in Australia!) and more predicted it’s very likely we’re going to see more extreme weather affecting all parts of the world.

Extreme weather is really really tough on infrastructure such as power (parts of the GTA were without power for days over Christmas due to an ice storm. Tough if you’re a senior living in a high-rise.) or think your cellphone is going to work.

Several countries saw death and injury and had had their roads, homes and businesses washed away during tsunamis and other wide-spread weather issues.

Ham radio is often pressed into service by helping agencies in those situations as it’s the only communications that still works.

Now here’s a simpler story but one that serves to show the effectiveness of our wonderful, worldwide hobby.

Thanks to Mike, VA3MW, for this story:

Seems a young woman got onto Facebook’s Ham Radio Operator’s page as she was worried about her dad. She wasn’t a ham but her father was licensed in the US as Starboard_sideKK4UOR. Dad was sailing in the Caribbean and the only information the daughter had was his last known position and the name of his sailboat. Calls via satellite phone had failed and the family was getting worried.

The young woman’s pleas caused an immediate response by Amateur Radio operators.

Facebook comments included information on how to contact authorities in the region and which frequencies to monitor.

One ham checked QRZ.COM and found that Dad had posted on QRZ that he often checked into the mobile marine service net on 14.300 MHz.

Within 30 minutes of her call for help, a ham radio op reported to the young woman that her father was currently being heard on the net frequency. A Canadian ham came up on the frequency and took Dad off to a secondary frequency no doubt to inform him of his daughter’s concern and to ask him to call home.

All in all the entire exchange which involved hams from several countries took less than an hour.

What a combination of Social Media and Ham Radio. Kinda makes you proud to be a Ham.



QRP – QRO – FlexRadio

Thanks to an article in the National Contest Journal where author Mike, VE3GFN (Good For Nothing but a pretty good contester especially on CW) interviewed me on being a QRP contester I’ve been getting quite a few emails asking my opinion on QRP, contesting and, of course, the viability of the FlexRadio SDR as a contesting radio.2014 NCJ Jan Feb Cover.indd

First let me say if you’re planning on running five watts QRP as a contester you need a five-watt contesting radio.

That means most of the kits you can buy for under $200 won’t cut it in the contesting world. On the other hand you won’t want to carry let alone power a standard big box contest rig out to some field or remote location regardless of power out. So most “trail” radios are out with the exception of the amazing Elecraft KX3 which is on my wish list.

The first requirement of a contesting rig is ease of operating. You don’t want to be swapping out cables or soldering connectors on old coax at 2 am.  What you want here is absolutely no surprises.DSC_0003

The second requirement is a brick wall front end on the receiver. Yes you can contest with an IC-703 (or a 756 like my old rig) but 48 hours of SSB splatter in your ears will convince you that there has to be a better rig out there for contesting.

There is a reason why you can buy 100-watt rig for $1,000 or $10,000. Most of the difference in price is in the receiver.

Third requirement is to remember the best contesting rig you’ve got is the one in front of you. While a K3 is a really excellent contesting rigs, the base price is the price you’ll pay after you’ve added filters, panoramic displays, auto tuners, amps and more can end up over $5000.

Suddenly our used IC-703 at $400 looks pretty good as does the Flex 1500 at $600 (with all filters built in). What you want to do is pick your contests. A QRP on 10 meters when there’s a substantial opening is a killer. I worked a guy the other day contesting on 10 running five watts mobile!

So would I recommend a FlexRadio for contesting?

The answer right now is no.

As much as I love my FlexRadios they are not plug and play. Most complaints about the rigs can be laid at the feet of operator error and there is a learning curve. Contesters need simplicity and the Flex rig setup isn’t simple. (It’s not brain surgery and you do need a pretty robust PC to run the software.)

Also the ergonomics associated with which window is active on the computer screen and how a 2 am slip of the mouse can create untold problems with sudden unexpected frequency change (caused by typing in the logging program window with a mouse that’s still pointing to the SDR window) will be too much trouble for most contesters.

Having said that a $600 Flex 1500 alone or with a $1,000 five-hundred watt amp will outperform just about any rig ever made IMHO. While this might attract some rabid comments (and has in the past), I find the Flex audio to be much much more listenable over a 48-hour contest than any big box rig I’ve ever used.

My new Flex 3000 at under $2,000 is an amazing 100-watt rig and setup with two monitors makes for a killer digital rig and one of the best CW contesting rigs ever. (There’s something about tuning down the band in 200 Hz slices working one guy after another that can’t be duplicated by rigs without lots and lots of front-end and IF filtering which at 200 HZ tend to ring like a church bell.)

I’m still working on my FlexKnob lagging when tuning on the Flex 3000 and not on the knob2Flex 1500 (seems the SDR tuning window is getting commands after the knob stops rotating). I’ve bought a new FireWire cable and card. I’ve vaporized ports and changed the aggressiveness of the devices to no effect. (Turning on spur reduction eliminates the issue which makes me suspect a software issue Flex!) It’s a work in progress.

Also maybe it’s just me but I work more guys on my FlexRadios because the transmitter note or sound stands out in a crowd. There’s no other way to explain how easily I can bust big pileups with the 3000 and even the 1500 at five watts.

Yes, yes I drank the FlexRadio Cool-Aid but honestly these are wonderful rigs and even best of all can be run sitting on the floor invisible in our home office setup.

All you need on your desk is the monitor, a keyboard and a mouse. I keep a set of CW paddles just to make a style statement and a glowing Drake 2B in perfect condition to keep my hands warm during our Canadian winters.

How To Get Free PR For Ham Radio

Congratulations to Burlington, Ontario’s Herb Hilgenberg, VE3LML, for being the subject of a front-page article in today’s Globe and Mail celebrating Herb’s 25 years of volunteering to provide weather information to sailors around the world.

The article was prompted by news of the December presentation by the United States Coast Guard of the Meritorious Public Service Award given to Herb. An American spokesperson for the US Coast Guard said this could be the first time the award has been presented to a non-American.

In addition to the story being on the front page, there’s a great shot of Herb and his station on page 11. Congratulations Herb and everybody go out and buy a copy of today’s newspaper!

So how do we get more publicity for our fabulous diverse and cutting-edge hobby?

I was the VP of a national PR firm and a daily newspaper and national magazine editor and here’s how you do it:

  • News stories happen all the time but most go unreported because nobody called their local newspaper, radio or TV station to tell them
  • January, February, July and August are very slow news times and now is the perfect time to pitch a good-news story to a reporter or editor
  • You can pitch your story via email, telephone or written media release
  • You don’t need to write the story but you do need to highlight why the story would be of interest to the readers, viewers or listeners
  • All news stories are local! This means whatever the story it has to be on local interest.
  • Always provide your own name and telephone number and follow-up your pitch

That’s public relations in brief. 

So how did the Herb Hilgenberg story get into The Globe and Mail and more importantly on the front freaking page?

It’s in the story. Herb got a prestigious award. He got the award for 25 years as a volunteer. There was a good human interest story to kick-off the article. Finally it’s possible that this was the first time a Canadian has been so honoured by the US Coast Guard and thus become of “local interest” to all Canadians. And the photo looks okay.

This is what is called a good news story.

Notice in the story the reporter didn’t use Herb’s call sign. That’s because none of the readers care. We care but we’re a collection of enthusiasts, geeks and nerds and real people don’t care.

There isn’t a photo of Herb’s antennas again for the same reason as above.

I’m guessing that either the US Coast Guard put out a news release on this award back in December and it has sat on the G&M editor’s desk just waiting for a slow news day to get used.

Once the editor figured out he or she wanted it, a reporter and a pretty decent photographer was sent to interview Herb and to shoot a photo of Herb and his station. Notice in the photo the station is way in the background (again normal people don’t care) and Herb is in the foreground as is what appears to be framed awards.

That’s how you do it.

Oh and BTW don’t wait for RAC (who haven’t had a VP or PR since I ran for the door) or anybody else. It won’t kill a story if the editor gets multiple submissions. It might be confusing for a moment but the editor doesn’t care about anything but the story. If your story is of interest, it will find a way to get into the mainstream media.

Way to go Herb and congratulations on your 25 years of dedicated service.

All Things Flex

Software defined radios like the FlexRadio series of radios is definitely not for everyone. It’s not a big box radio and it’s sure not plug and play but what you get is cutting-age technology at an extremely affordable price.DSCF1187

We’ve talked about this before but just check Sherwood Engineering’s receiver data page for a list of the best contest-quality rigs. (And remember a contest-quality rig isn’t primarily a DX or rag-chewing rig which do not need the aggressive filtering or excessively annoying audio found in contesting rigs.)

Flex has three rigs in Sherwood’s top 13 rigs (Ten Tec has 4! and Elecraft has both the K3 and KX3.) The contesters’ old standard the IC-756 Pro III comes in at 40th on the new list. That’s got to hurt.

I now own a FlexRadio 1500 (QRP, contest-quality receiver and $600! What’s not to love? That’s the setup in the photo.) and the FlexRadio 3000 (100-watts, even more aggressive contest-quality receiver and under $2K plus a built-in auto tuner). The 3000 runs from a shelf under the desktop and you wouldn’t know it’s there unless you looked.

BUT and there’s always a but getting both radios to work flawlessly has been a journey. First you need a decent, newish, Windows 7 quad-core computer. I bought mine for around $900 at TigerDirect and it runs around 2% CPU. Most experts say anything around 20% is okay so you can get away with a less aggressive computer.

Second you need some patience to understand how to setup the various parameters. Now for running your SDR on its own, it’s really pretty close to plug and play. Both my 1500 and my 3000 come up right away and they work just fine on all modes and all bands. Getting them to work with MMTTY for RTTY and Writelog for contest logging takes some time but it can be done. I now know more about how my audio card works than I ever wanted to know 🙂

I’m still wrestling with a persistent issue of lag when I introduce the FlexKnob to the 3000. With the 1500, it works fine. On the 3000 there’s a noticeable and annoying lag as the computer continues to send commands to the screen after the mouse or the Knob stops moving. The mouse seems to work fine unless the Knob is installed then it stalls as well. And if the spur reduction switch is engaged the lag is almost eliminated. Humm.

I’ve been getting a lot of help from Flex experts in the company and the huge and informed Flexers community at large. Initially I thought it was a FireWire issue since on the 3000 was affected and the 1500 wasn’t but the experts pointed me towards port assignments.

I’ve made some progress (The lag is still there but not as bad as before.) and I am thinking of a new FireWire card for $30 or so.

But here’s new hope!

KE9NS has a FlexRadio site that looks very comprehensive. This weekend I’ll go through all his suggestions around software configuration and we’ll see if we can’t whip the FlexKnob into shape 🙂

The site features setup for all the digital modes and this alone is worth a view.

RAC 2014

Happy New Year RAC members. Are you having fun yet?

You are if you’re subscribing to the full-colour electronic version of The Canadian Amateur magazine. As a former national magazine group editor (in other words I had a team of national magazine editors reporting to me) I know a decent little magazine when I see one and TCA is A+ in my books.TCAcover_January2014_large

Now that’s not to say I wouldn’t change the editorial layout (which has gotten stale over the years) and rearrange the order of articles (nobody wants to see political rantings at the front of the magazine).

Readers come for articles that interest them and those are the articles that should be up front  and I would hire a commission sales guy to sell ads (TCA deserves to grow.). This isn’t a job for amateurs!

However the magazine as it stands, especially in the brilliant electronic version is terrific. (Although the concept of hyperlinks seems to be elusive. I’d recommend the editor get a digital subscription to Wired Magazine to see how to produce an online publication that interacts with readers.)

Among the better articles is one by Bill Unger, VE3XT, who has always been one of the good guys at RAC, on how to operate a QRP rig from the field. John White, VA7JW, has a great article on coaxial lightening arrestors and when it comes to QRP, David Conn, VE3KL, has published part one of a two part article on designing and building end-fed half wave HF antennas.

This not to say the other articles in this issue of TCA aren’t equally terrific because they are but you need a subscription to read them.

Which brings me back to a point I’ve made before. If it were me I’d give away the magazine and add articles that explain the value of being a RAC member.

Really can you see anyone shelling out $50 for TCA (especially the tatty print edition) but I can see potential new members opening their wallets when they read what RAC actually does for members and our wonderful hobby.

And RAC could be doing so much more but you’re already aware of my opinions about governance and how that has crippled our national organization keeping it and us back in the dark ages when it comes to working together.

But let me leave this the first article of 2014 on a positive note.

We ageing hams die off (I’m getting to the positive part) or we lose interest and then we move on to our greater rewards. And then new guys show up. And new guys come with new ideas. And if enough new guys take over, we get new thinking and new directions. And I for one can’t wait.

Happy New Year and good DX and contesting to one and all.