Monday, November 30, 2009

Fake Diamond

A few weeks ago I wrote about the Diamond SRH805S stubby helical antenna I bought on eBay to use with my VX-8E. Its performance turned out to be much worse than expected and the antenna was not even resonant in the 2m band according to my antenna analyzer. Having looked at it a bit more closely I now believe the antenna I bought is not a real Diamond SRH805S at all.

The pictures above show, from left to right, the antenna I bought, an unbranded "short dual band SMA antenna" advertised by an eBay seller from Hong Kong, and a picture of a genuine Diamond SRH805S taken by an owner. You can see that the fake antenna and the unbranded antenna look identical apart from the "Diamond" labelling on the fake. There is a wide knurled brass band on the fake and the unbranded antennas, where the real Diamond has just a narrow smooth band. The fake and the unbranded antennas both have a double groove molded into the case, the real Diamond doesn't. The picture of the unbranded antenna gives its height as 52mm, matching exactly the one I have, while another picture I found of the Diamond SRH805S shows the height to be only 45mm.

The word "Diamond" on the fake antenna is not in the same font as on the real antenna, which uses a bolder font matching that used in Diamond company advertising and on the packaging. The labelling on the real antenna is blue while the fake is white. To be fair, I have found an image on a Canadian radio dealer's site where the labelling is white. It is also written top to bottom rather than bottom to top and has an aircraft logo on it. This may be a picture of an older version of the antenna.

The fake antenna came in a genuine-looking plastic case with a yellow back and a clear front. The forgers appear to have reproduced the lettering exactly. But on the genuine antenna cases the model number SRH805S is written in red. The genuine Diamond antenna comes with a rubber washer to seal between the antenna and the radio body if there is a gap. It also includes a printed sheet giving the specification of the product - the fake didn't.

One clue to the fact the antenna I bought was a fake is the price. I paid £6.99 including postage from Hong Kong for this antenna, which is about the same as the unbranded SMA antenna. Hams in the Far East have often told me prices there are a lot less than they are here so I was not as suspicious as perhaps I should have been.

Radioworld in the UK advertises the Diamond SRH805S for £25.96, while some Chinese and Hong Kong eBay sellers have what appear to be the genuine item (but could just be a better fake) for around £20 including postage. A Polish dealer ( is advertising what from the picture looks exactly like the antenna I bought for the zloty equivalent of about £14. A UK dealer ( is advertising a Diamond SRH805S for £13.99 but no picture is shown. In view of what I have discovered I would be interested to see what it looked like.

It might come as a bit of a surprise to many people that there are fake ham radio products on sale. I wonder how often these fake products are being passed off as the real thing for the full price?

What I want to do now is figure out how to get inside this antenna, preferably without resorting to use of a hacksaw, and see if I can tweak it down on to the 2m band and make something useful out of it.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Prince Charles visits Cockermouth

Prince Charles visited Cockermouth this morning to thank the rescue services for their work during the floods of a week ago and hear at first hand what happened. This was no whistle-stop tour for a photo-op and a couple of soundbites as happened when politicians visited a few days earlier. It is common knowledge that the Prince loves the Lake District and often takes holidays here and his visit was clearly motivated by genuine interest and concern.

He arrived by RAF helicopter shortly after 10 o'clock and his first stop was the Cockermouth Mountain Rescue headquarters where he met representatives of all the rescue services and voluntary organizations that had been involved, together with various dignitaries including the Mayor of Cockermouth. After that he walked down to "Main Street at Mitchells" - the former job centre owned by local firm Mitchells to which several flooded-out Main Street business have temporarily relocated. He was there for more than half an hour talking to business owners and customers inside.

Prince Charles didn't walk down to Main Street to see the devastation for himself nor did he visit any flooded-out homes. Perhaps the powers that be decided it would be too dirty for him. Still it was nice of him to come. It is the closest I've come to any member of the Royal Family. The questions he asked showed genuine interest and concern and he was very warm and sympathetic and I'm sure he helped the people he spoke to forget their troubles for a little while.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Ham Humour

Apologies to my regular readers for the lack of much radio related content during the last week. I think that witnessing at close hand the disaster that has befallen our small home town and affected acquaintances and local businesses has put hobby activities into perspective, with the result that I haven't felt much like going on the air or writing about radio. Hopefully normal service will resume in the near future.

I have still been keeping up with the blogs, and a new one that I recently added to my blogroll is The Fi-Ni Report. It's a satirical, tongue-in-cheek look at big gun DXing and contesting, and a refreshing look at a hobby that often takes itself just a bit too seriously. I recommend it.

Were the Cumbria floods man made?

As Cockermouth clears up after the floods and tries to get back to some semblance of normal life there's a rumour going round the town that the flooding was caused - or at least made worse than it need have been - by human action. It is being suggested that United Utilities, which owns Thirlmere lake and operates it as a reservoir, opened the sluice gates to release water into the River Greta which arrived in Keswick and then Cockermouth just at the time when the water level was already critical. This might explain why people who were there talk of the water level increasing with unbelievable rapidity.

Local people have been asking for years for the water level in Thirlmere to be maintained at a lower level to allow it to act as a sink for periods of heavy rainfall. But United Utilities has refused, being more interested in protecting its water asset for the benefit of its shareholders.

Meanwhile Cumbria County Council's new chief executive, whose salary is reported to be £170,000 per year (that's getting on for $300,000 for my US readers) has given her opinion that the disaster that occurred here is an example of climate change caused by global warming. I'm not sure why a local authority serving a population the size of Cumbria's needs an official whose salary is practically as much as the total remuneration of the British Prime Minister. But it might be better if she got on with the job of making decisions about what is going to be done and leave the unqualified pontificating to people like me who are happy to do it for nothing.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Two months on and what a difference

Just over two months ago I posted a review of the Elecraft K3 18 months on. I was fairly critical of the way some things worked, such as the memories or the fact that audio equalization was not disabled in data mode, and of the fact that some promised features such as synchronous AM detection were still unimplemented. Yesterday Elecraft released to production a firmware update that addresses all of those issues - and adds a lot more besides. I'm happy to say that my K3 now works the way I always hoped it would.

My review here and another similar one I posted on eHam provoked a lot of reaction. I received many messages of agreement, but also a lot of hate mail from people suggesting that since my criticisms were mostly about using modes like FM, AM and digital, perhaps I shouldn't have bought a K3 in the first place. However, Elecraft clearly took my comments to heart and sprung into action. Within two weeks - yes, two weeks - I was testing beta versions of firmware that addressed both the memory access and digital audio equalization issues, and synchronous AM was implemented a week or two later. Try that with your Kenwood, Icom or Yaesu.

Monday, November 23, 2009

KComm 1.8 released

I have just released version 1.8 of my logging and digital modes software for Elecraft transceivers, KComm.

Although the new software is on the site, the tedious and boring job of updating the online documentation pages to reflect the changes will take a bit longer, so woe betide anyone who emails to point out that the screenshot and description on the help page doesn't match the software!

Gordon Brown's slap in the face for Cumbria

Prime Minister Gordon Brown visited our flood-hit town at the weekend and pledged a million pounds of aid. This has gained a lot of publicity as was no doubt intended but I don't know if it was supposed to be considered generous. I think it is a slap in the face. A million pounds will just about buy four three-bedroomed detached houses around here. I doubt it will even pay for the engineers who will have to survey the 1,000 bridges Mr. Brown has ordered to be checked.

The meanness of the Government's offer hasn't escaped the attention of some of our right-wing political parties, who point out that in the same week Brown gave £1m to Cumbria, the Department for Overseas Development gave away £293 million of taxpayers money to places like Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Sierra Leone. Another extremist site reported that the government gave £1m to Cumbria but £800m to India, a country that can afford its own nuclear weapons for heavens sake!

At the European elections, politicians expressed concern at the rising popularity of nationalist and extremist parties. If they want to know why, they should take a long look at themselves in a mirror. The mainstream parties are so out of touch with the public, so obsessed with their expenses and their own importance on the world stage, that they have let other parties with some rather unpleasant agendas gain a foothold simply for saying about everyday issues what a lot of ordinary people actually think.

If Gordon Brown wants a hope of getting re-elected he should start spending more of our taxes on us, the British people, and not on MPs expenses, bank bailouts, waging wars and handouts to foreign countries.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Flood relief for the people of Cockermouth

I have had several requests for information about where to send aid for the people of Cockermouth affected by the flooding.

The Cumbria Community Foundation has set up a Cumbria Flood Recovery Fund for individuals, families and voluntary groups that have suffered in the flooding. See the Cumbria Community Foundation website for more information.

The Rotary Clubs of Cockermouth and Keswick have also launched a charity appeal to help people affected by the flooding who are unable to afford insurance due to having been flooded previously and have no means to repair their homes. You can donate to this appeal using PayPal. See the Rotary Club of Keswick website. Alternatively you can send a cheque direct to David Collins (one of our neighbours) who is organizing the appeal for Rotary Club of Cockermouth.

Ten metres is open

I'm trying out WSPR 2.0 and decided to set it up on 10m. With my attic dipole I immediately copied ZS6BIM running 20W. I have now upped my power to 20W to see if I can get spotted myself.

Without WSPR who would have thought 10m was supporting propagation?

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The orange jackets take over

The water level in Cockermouth has receded from yesterday and it is now possible to walk along Main Street, at least it is if you are wearing an orange jacket. There is no access to the public yet, understandably, as even from as close as I could get you could see that the street is covered in a couple of inches of probably very slippery mud. The windows of every shop front have been broken by the pressure of water. It will probably be several days before the street is cleaned and buildings made secure and safe to allow public access again. How much longer before shops are dried out, refurbished and trading again? That's anyone's guess.

The river Derwent is still flowing fast and the water level is still only a couple of feet below the top of the arches of Gote Bridge. At the peak it must have been above the bridge level. Part of the stone parapet has been torn away by the force of the water and these large stones lay scattered over the roadway. At least the bridge is still there, unlike the one taking the A597 over the Derwent at Workington, which collapsed early yesterday morning while a police officer was on it, claiming his life.

One span of the modern footbridge linking one of the town's main car parks with the town centre has collapsed, as you can see in the distance in Olga's picture above, though all roads leading to that car park are closed at the moment anyway.

It is possible to get into the town from the south as there is no need to cross the river. The town's main Sainsbury's supermarket is open for business and has plenty of food. But it was unusually quiet for a Saturday, mainly because the only customers were those of us who arrived on foot.

The orange jackets had decided to commandeer all of the town's only other large car park, with the result that shoppers arriving by car had nowhere to park. Whether this was strictly necessary or not is debatable, as they were only occupying a small part of the car park. But an orange jacket confers magical powers of authority, so who could argue?

However, no-one thought to put signs at the outskirts of the town to say "all car parks closed, residents only access" with the result that there was a virtual gridlock of cars coming in by one of the two possible access routes in the hope of getting to the supermarket and finding that all they could do was drive through and out the other one.

Although yesterday we were allowed access to shops in Station Street that were unaffected by the floods, today we were not. There was a ribbon across the street and a couple of police ensuring that nobody but bona fide orange jackets were allowed to pass.

Presumably the bureaucrats, health and safety officers and other functionaries had now arrived on site and decided the public must not be allowed anywhere that people in orange jackets are working. The hardware store, the butcher's, the Co-op supermarket and the post office, all of which we visited yesterday and which the flood waters never reached, are now officially out of bounds. Those businesses that escaped damage by the flood waters are now suffering because of over-zealous officials.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Cockermouth floods

When I eventually switched on my computer my inbox was full of messages of concern about our well-being. Cockermouth has made the news around the world for the flooding that has overwhelmed the town centre. Fortunately our house is at one of the higher points in the town, well above the water level. The main effects the disaster has had on us have been a couple of power cuts, a night disturbed by the sound of helicopters and emergency sirens, no access to the shops and the broadband internet not working. I am sending this from a netbook using a 3G mobile broadband dongle.

Cockermouth has flooded before, twice in the last few years, but this is probably the worst flooding since 1938. This time, the river Derwent flooded Main Street to a height of up to two metres during the night. By the time we took the picture above, late this morning, the water level had fallen by more than a metre. The pressure of the water had shattered shop windows, washing all the stock to the back, and we could see the tide mark left high on the wall by the water.

Cockermouth has many unique, independent businesses including a surprisingly large bookshop - only recently refurbished - several quality clothing shops, and shops selling hand made arts and crafts. It is normally a wonderful place to do Christmas shopping. All of these businesses are ruined, with little hope of recovery in time for Christmas. The word tragedy cannot begin to describe what this is for these small businesses.

The Christmas lights are up and the tree in place ready for the official switch-on of the illuminations this Sunday. Even if the water subsides by then - and more rain is forecast for tomorrow - I doubt if that is now going to happen.

Another casualty of the floods was Wordsworth House (seen above), birthplace of the famous English poet William Wordsworth and a major tourist attraction now in the care of the National Trust and open to the public as a museum. Olga works there one morning a week as a volunteer. We saw the custodian who said that the water level had been as high as the top of the wall. It is not yet known what damage has been done and what historical artefacts have been ruined or lost.

My heart goes out to the people who live near the river who have only just had their homes dried out after the last, much less severe, flooding.

As I write this, the rescue work still goes on. Helicopters still occasionally fly overhead, and you can still occasionally hear sirens. More heavy rain is forecast for tomorrow.

But it will take months for properties inundated by water to dry out and become habitable again, months for businesses to start up again - if they ever do - and months for the town to return to normal. This is, in the truest sense of the word, a disaster.

QSO by candlelight

On Thursday evening my wife and I were settling down to watch a film on TV when the lights went out. Because of heavy rain Cockermouth was on flood alert and unknown to us as we had not been out the river Derwent had burst its banks and flooded the town centre. I suppose the water had caused a short somewhere and the power had been cut off.

While my wife lit candles I got out the QRP K2, which by good fortune I had only recently charged up its internal SLA battery - which like the K2 is ten years old this year. It was very pleasant to listen to HF bands free of the awful electrical noise I am normally afflicted with.

Only 40m and 80m were open (of the bands I can use) and with only QRP there was not much chance of making an SSB contact. Although I have a battery powered laptop, using digimodes wasn't practical by candlelight since I could hardly see the keyboard. So I had to use CW.

Finding someone to have a contact with proved harder than I expected. When I called someone either they didn't hear anyone at all or replied to somebody else. I called CQ periodically as well. Eventually Peter G0KOK from Dover heard and replied to my call on 80m. Just as I was replying to him my candle went out so I was literally sending in the dark.

Peter gave me a 529 report, with a 559 from me. Peter was running an IC-7600 and presumably 100W so I'm not sure how much he copied from me and whether he realized he was in QSO with someone from a place that was making the news headlines. I had trouble copying him at times, though the QRN was from emergency services sirens and RAF Sea King helicopters hovering overhead not the usual interference from various neighbours' electrical devices.

I signed with Peter just before 10pm, and at about 10 minutes past the lights came back on again. It has been years since we last had a power cut here. If it happened more frequently I'd probably be better prepared for it.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Better late than never

A small parcel came in the post this morning. It was the Microset R50 2m linear amplifier I ordered from a dealer in Italy on eBay on 24th October, almost 4 weeks ago!

I had given up hope of ever seeing it. In fact, I spent quite a lot of time yesterday installing the Spectrum Communications transverter to use in place of the FT-817 for 2m use.

The Italian dealer, Sitec, were very prompt in sending the amplifier off. However they missed off the first two letters of the tracking number when they sent it to me so I couldn't check progress on the Poste Italiane website. On 5th November I contacted them again. They gave me the right number. Then, with the help of Marco I4MFA, I was able to find out that it had been at Rome airport on 29th October with a destination of Great Britain. So where had it gone?

On Monday 16th I contacted Sitec asking them if they could obtain compensation from the Post Office. Unfortunately I had not purchased insured delivery as my lack of Italian didn't enable me to select this when purchasing - I had just picked the default shipping option. I assumed that my amplifier had been stolen or lost. So its arrival was a complete surprise.

I am very happy to have received the amplifier at last, not just because I had paid for it but because there are no alternatives at an affordable price that will amplify the 5W from an FT-817 to 50W. The manufacturers, Microset, informed me that this model R50 is no longer available as the power transistor used is obsolete, and it is not available from any dealer in the UK. The only choices are the R45, a 6.5dB gain amplifier that would produce about 25W when driven by an FT-817 and the SR100 with 9dB of gain, which is bigger and much more expensive because its maximum output power is 100W.

Another good thing about buying this amplifier from Italy was that it cost £89, whereas Waters and Stanton in the UK wanted £129 for the lower powered R45. However if I was buying from this dealer again I'd make sure they sent it FedEx or some method like that. Three weeks to wait for a parcel from Europe is no joke.

By the way, the DB6NT transverter for 2m is still for sale.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A little bird told me

A note just posted to the Elecraft reflector by Eric WA6HHQ says that Elecraft is now making "regular short announcements on Twitter." And so they are. You can now receive "tweets" to tell you that a new firmware update has been released. Well golly gosh.

I have long advocated that Elecraft create a read-only communications channel. It would solve the problem for reflector subscribers who complain about the volume of postings but can't unsubscribe because they don't want to miss new product announcements or new firmware updates. But what I had in mind was something low-tech like an "elecraft-announce" mailing list, not something that requires you to sign up for some flavour of the month social networking site.

Someone named Richard recently took me to task in a comment to my months-old posting about Twitter, saying that I was being unfair and Twitter was "more than just telling everyone what you are doing." I suppose this was the kind of thing he had in mind.

However, methods of keeping people informed with timely updates about important information existed long before someone invented Twitter. There is the humble mailing list, as I have just mentioned, RSS feeds, or even an Elecraft blog - now that's something a lot of people would subscribe to.

So I am still refusing to join Twitter. It's a solution to a problem that has already been solved - though of course the existing solutions are open standards, not in the least bit "cool" and don't present an opportunity for someone to make a lot of money. If I ever start "tweeting" you can send for the men in white coats.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Wot, no Leonids?

After seeing numerous pings and even managing to complete one 6m JT6M meteor scatter contact during the Perseid meteor shower last August I was hopeful of more success during this month's Leonids. However, despite monitoring 50.230MHz for several hours I have so far seen nothing much.

The screen dump shows what is on my WSJT screen at the time of writing. At 11:37 the G4DDY JO02BEX looks like a snippet of something. However, G4DDY is not known to be active on meteor scatter. A quick peek at ON4KST Chat shows that G4DEZ has been busy on JT6M MS, and his QTH locator is JO03AE. This corresponds closely to what I copied, with a few characters being the 'one down' from what G4DEZ would have been sending. (This makes sense because JT6M is a simple FSK system using close-spaced tones, each tone frequency corresponding to a different character.)

The GW3MEW at 12:20 also looks like a valid callsign, but again not someone who operates 6m MS. However there is a post from GW3LEW on ON4KST Chat, so that is presumably who I was hearing.

There is not much traffic on the chat system at all, which suggests to me that there is not much activity. There may be enough meteors for high powered stations like G4DEZ to make contacts but not enough for me to even bother attempting.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


The OK/OM DX CW Contest has just finished. I made three contacts on 80m last night in half an hour between TV programmes, and a further 55 on 20m and 40m after breakfast this morning for a total of 2494 claimed points.

I have a particular affinity for this contest for no other reason than the Czech Republic is one of my favourite countries. As always for me with contests this was a "just for fun" entry working down each band and trying to contact each OK or OM station I found. I'm not going to win any awards but I won't be quite as close to the bottom of my category as last time.

KComm performed well, keying the K3 using the serial command protocol - the only logging program that is specifically designed to do this. It's not a dedicated contest logger but it is fine for this kind of operation. It warned me before I could make a duplicate contact, its generic statistics capability gave me the counts of contacts and multipliers so I could easily calculate my claimed score and it allowed me to export my log in the requested Cabrillo format.

Well that's enough radio for one weekend. After posting this I'm going to stay out of the shack for a bit.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Watching PSK31 on a remote screen

I just completed a QSO with George SV1EAG on 15 metres. What was particularly interesting about it was that George has a live streaming webcam on his website so I could see my PSK31 signal as it was received on his screen.

I could see that George had some QSB while I was sending my name and did not receive it correctly, so on the next over I sent it again as you can see. I had to up the power to 50 watts as George said he had a lot of QRM, as you can see on his waterfall.

15m is open

The 15m band is open. Some DX has been heard on PSK31 including South Africa and Brazil, though no success in actually working any DX yet.

This is using an MFJ magnetic loop in the attic.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Software testing on 20m

I have had the K3 listening on 20m since after breakfast this morning to test the new PSK31 propagation spotting capability I have programmed into KComm. I also spent an hour or so around lunch time making some PSK31 contacts. Conditions didn't seem too bad. As you can see from the Propagation Reporter screen grab my PSK31 signals propagated right across North America. Not bad for 40W to a dipole that is bent to fit into a loft space 18ft (6m) wide!

Note that the big balloons are reports from people who spotted me; the small "pins" are stations whose signals I heard.

I would have bet that KG6MZS, the station in California who spotted my signal, was using a beam on a tower. But according to his page, he is using a dipole up at 50 feet. Who needs a beam?

My main aim now with KComm is to fix the little details that only become apparent when actually using the software on the air. I've also been experimenting with parsing received text directly into the log. I got this idea from developing the PSK31 spotter.

In digimodes or CW the word 'DE' is usually followed by the sending station's callsign. If you receive DE xxxxx xxxxx and the xxxxx is the same in both cases, the chances are you have decoded the callsign correctly. This is how I identify calls to spot to the PSK Reporter website. If I receive this on the frequency I am actively listening on then I can put this in the call field in the log as well. This saves valuable seconds in replying to someone if I just catch the end of their CQ call.

The same principle can be used to look for other log fields. When sending their name, people usually send NAME IS xxxxx xxxxx. In this case, NAME is the flag, IS is something that can be discarded if present, and the name is the next word that is sent twice. RST and grid square can be grabbed in the same way.

QTH is a bit more problematic. It can consist of more than one word, for example QTH IS NR CHIPPING SODBURY or QTH IS 30K W OF CARLISLE. Not everyone sends it twice and even if they do they may not send it twice in exactly the same way. So at the moment I can only grab the town if someone sends QTH {IS} {NR} xxxxx where IS and NR are discarded if present. Still, every little helps.

It isn't a huge step from this to developing a robotic QSO maker, though one should not underestimate the brain's ability to figure out what someone's name or QTH is when a few of the characters are garbled. The simple parser I've described falls down quite often as people, being people, can be quite creative in how they send information. But a robotic beacon that people could call using a fixed format to get a confirmation of contact would not be a difficult programming exercise.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

As mentioned in RadCom!

The December issue of the RSGB monthly magazine RadCom arrived today. Turning quickly to the QRP column written by George Dobbs G3RJV as I normally do, I saw that the topic this time was "Where to find the best QRP blogs on the internet." A quick scan down the page revealed that this blog was one of those listed! George writes: "This blog is an inspiration to all those radio amateurs who say they cannot operate on the HF bands because of limited space."

Other UK bloggers who get a mention in George's column include Dominic, M1KTA and Roger, G3XBM. Also recommended to RadCom readers are Bill N2CQR's SolderSmoke blog and his Gadgeteer page, plus the cryptic but interesting LY3LP Laboratory.

As someone who can put together a kit as long as it comes with all the right parts and no mistakes in the instructions, I am honoured to be mentioned on the same page as such accomplished constructors by none other than the guru of QRP. I hope that RadCom readers who find their way here as a result of George's recommendation will find something of interest. If you do, then you'll probably also enjoy the blogs listed in the Blogroll on the left. Those should keep you busy for a bit!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Spotting CW contacts to PSK Reporter

I now have PSK31 automatic spotting to PSK Reporter working very nicely in KComm. Here's a screen grab to whet your appetite.

Since KComm also supports an interface with CW Skimmer I added an option to spot CW stations decoded by that program.

I'm not sure whether the operator of the PSK Reporter site, Philip Gladstone, wants CW stations spotted to his site or not, so I tried to send him an email. However, despite removing the "nospam" from the address given at the foot of the site, the email bounced. So I don't know how to contact him.

Note that this feature will only be available in the next version of KComm, which will be released when I am happy with it and don't have any more new things to add to it. I should also point out that KComm only works with Elecraft K2 and K3 transceivers - that's why it's called K-Comm!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Building the Dixie Pixie

Jorge KI4SGU has started a new blog specifically to document building a QRP PIXIE2 transceiver Manhattan style. It promises to be a good read and I for one will be following it with interest.

I've been intending to build one of these little Pixies myself for a long time but I have never got around to ordering up the parts needed. Or rather, I have never managed to put my mind to deciding what other parts to buy at the same time to make up a worthwhile order.

C91VM QSLs invalid for IOTA awards

I have a lot of sympathy for people who live in rare DX locations. Whenever they go on the air they must find themselves on the receiving end of a pile-up of people interested only in claiming a tick in the box, making it impossible to enjoy a normal radio contact. If that isn't bad enough they are then expected to incur the considerable costs of QSLing all these rubber-stamp contacts. I think it is fair and reasonable for DX stations to make a charge for QSLs that covers the costs of printing and mailing the cards. (I also think that awards should accept eQSLs as valid confirmations, which would eliminate both the cost and the chore of QSLing for the DX station.)

But is it right for DXpeditions that travel to an exotic location specifically to give out contacts with that location to demand payment not just for the QSL but also a contribution towards the costs of the expedition itself? The RSGB IOTA Committee and G3KMA do not think so. They have announced that C91VM QSLs will be rejected for credit towards IOTA awards because of the operator's policy of requiring a $5 payment for each QSL. The cards will be accepted for IOTA credit only if the operator changes its policy and agrees that requests made with sufficient return postage will be met in a timely manner.

It is very costly, time-consuming and often hazardous to life and health to mount a major DXpedition. It must be hard to get sponsors for expeditions in these difficult economic times. And I dare say too few of those who request a QSL are willing to make voluntary donations. So expeditioners must bear most of the costs themselves.

But nobody forces the DXpeditioners to go. Rather than open the gate to a flood of commercial DXpeditions with cards at $5 a time it would be better if these operations didn't take place at all. This could be the thin end of the wedge that could lead to all kinds of 'organizations' obtaining desirable special prefixes from their licensing authority and then demanding a fee for the cards.

I don't think this kind of commercialization is in the interests of the hobby. I think the IOTA committee has made the right decision here.

Monday, November 09, 2009

It wasn't me, guv!

It's frustrating and I hope only coincidence that the PSK Reporter website went down just at the time that I wanted to start testing sending spots to it from KComm. It wasn't me that broke it, honest, as I hadn't had time to send any data to it before finding the site was down. I hope it comes back soon!

The enemy that never was

Today is the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the symbolic end of the Cold War. I can remember watching the events unfold on TV with joy and elation. It was the end of an era. My entire life had been lived under the threat of nuclear annihilation by the Soviet enemy. Now that time was over and the world could look forward to a peaceful future.

We were free to visit Eastern Europe and Russia. I ended up marrying a Ukrainian whom I would never have met if this had not happened.

Meeting Ukrainians and being married to one has allowed me to see the Cold War from a different perspective. Most Russian people are amazed that we in the west believed that they would start another war. For them, America was the danger. Russia had lost tens of millions of men during the second world war and millions more in wars going back to Napoleonic times. They wished simply to ensure that this would never happen again. Having a strong military backed up by nuclear weapons was essential to prevent further invasions of the Soviet motherland which they believed America might attempt if they were not strong enough to prevent it.

I'm sure that many people particularly Americans who read this having been subjected most of their lives to the propaganda that communism was an enemy that needed to be fought against and eradicated will have trouble believing this. But the Russians I have met do not seem to me to be aggressive, warlike people. They would much prefer to sort things out round the table over a few bottles of vodka. The attitude of some Americans, on the other hand - particularly those who insist on "the right to bear arms" - I find quite scary.

So if you ask me whether Russia was ever likely to start World War Three my answer would be no, except by accident. I'm more inclined to believe the views of the Russian and Ukrainian people I have met than those of Western politicians, militarists and arms manufacturers who had an enormous vested interest in talking up the threat of communist world domination.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

The perils of PayPal

Tim, G4VXE has just installed the APRS application iBCNU on his iPhone. I wish I could do the same, but my attempt to buy an unlocked iPhone that I could use on my existing network (since I did not wish to switch to O2) has turned into another reason to hate PayPal.

I have been ripped off by a crooked Irish firm called Dynamac Trade that was advertising "sim free unlocked iPhones" using Google ads. Their website looked slick and professional and had Blackberry phones for sale as well. No reason to smell a rat. But weeks passed, the firm did not respond to my attempts to contact it, and I still did not have a phone.

I filed a claim with PayPal and after just over a week I received this reply: "We have decided in your favour, however we were unable to recover any funds from the seller's account. We will make our best effort to recover the funds in question if they become available in the seller's account in the future." I wonder what the chances are of that?

PayPal may be fine for making small radio purchases from sellers you can hopefully trust, and it's normally the only option for buying things on eBay, but it's a risky way of buying things compared to using a credit card. If the buyer defaults on something that cost over £100 and was bought with a UK credit card you'll be reimbursed. My credit card even provides a 90 day warranty and accidental damage cover on items bought with it. PayPal is no safer than sending cash. No wonder so many people say PayPal Sucks.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

WSPRing all night on 40

Wednesday evening was a 40m WSPR activity night. There were more stations active on 40m than there were on 30m - a rare event - so I decided to join the fun and see where 2W to my MFJ magnetic loop might get me.

The screengrab shows the results. My own signals were not received outside of Europe. But I managed a few DX spots. LA3JJ in the Canary Is (WSPR doesn't support prefixes in the call) was detected on and off throughout the night. Alan VK6BN in Western Australia running 20W was spotted twice just after 2130. At 2252 I logged Joe, K1JT, the inventor of this amazing mode, running 5W. Jorge KI4SGU in Georgia, running 20W, just scraped in with one spot on the threshold of detection at 0308, as did Mel VE2DC a few minutes later running 5W.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

No whispering for contacts

An interesting question was raised in the WSPR forum: If my WSPR beacon is received by another station, and I receive his beacon, can we claim a contact and exchange QSLs?

I had been thinking about this myself a couple of days before the question was raised. WSPR is a good mode for HF propagation studies but it has become a popular activity with people who like to see what can be achieved with very little power. It is also popular with those who have no opportunity to put up good antennas who find that despite this they can still experience the thrill of sending radio signals half way round the world. So it's easy to see why people would like to claim contacts using WSPR.

The answer given, with which I must reluctantly agree, is that no, reception of each other's beacons does not constitute a contact because the confirmation of contact is only sent via the internet and not over the radio. WSPRers can QSL reception reports if they want, but these cards should be treated as SWL reports not two-way QSOs, and will not be valid for awards.

There is a WSPR QSO mode, but I have hardly ever heard anyone using it. The reason, I suspect, is that it is fatally flawed and unusable. WSPR works in synchronized two-minute cycles, of which about one minute and 54 seconds is spent transmitting information. The information is not decoded in real-time, it is decoded after the transmission period is over. This means that in theory you have five seconds to react to seeing someone's CQ call and set up your reply to them.

In practise you have less than that, because it takes at least a couple of seconds before you see whose signals have been decoded. Sometimes you have literally less than no time, because if there are a lot of WSPR signals it can take the computer more than five seconds to decode everything that was heard. Because the start of transmission time is critical you would have to wait best part of two minutes before you could send your reply. By that time the other station, seeing no response, might send his CQ again so he won't receive your reply anyway. It's a test of patience that is likely to end in frustration and I'm not surprised that the QSO mode receives little use.

It's a shame, but I don't see a solution without speeding up the transmission period so it takes 1m45s, or rewriting the software so that it does at least a quick decode of stronger signals in real time. There are other JT modes that can be used for QSOs, though they don't work with such weak signals and are unlikely to get you round the world with 2 watts to a curtain rail on a day with no sunspots.

PSK31 signals received on 40m

I left the K3 and Fldigi spotting signals on the 40m band last night. The antenna was the MFJ magnetic loop in the attic. The screengrab below shows the results.

No transatlantic signals were heard, but a couple of signals from Siberia, east of Novosibirsk, in the hour or so after midnight, were nice to see.

I'll repeat the exercise soon using the dipole.

Using less bandwidth

No, this isn't about using narrowband modes on the amateur bands. But it might be of interest to anyone who blogs or creates content on the web and is concerned that something they publish gets so many hits that they exceed their web hosting bandwidth allowance and get their website shut down - the so-called Slashdot effect.

I recently wrote about the Baby Black Widow Paddle for the HB-1A that Jerry W5JH offered to make. Jerry has had little interest so far and he asked if I could talk it up a bit so I posted an item on I wanted to insert a picture of the prototype paddle, and QRZ requested a direct URL, so I used the image that is already on my blog.

After posting, I became concerned that the number of downloads of this image from - which has rather more readers than this blog, I suspect! - might push over its 10GB monthly bandwidth allowance. Then I remembered a tip that allows you to simply use a "cloud computing" distribution network to take the load off your own server.

The Coral Content Distribution Network is a free peer-to-peer content distribution network that caches popular content automatically on a worldwide network of web proxy servers. Using it as simple as adding to the hostname part of the address of the image file, video or whatever.

So if is the real address of my picture, I would put as the address to use. The first time someone loads the page containing the image it will be read from my server and cached. When the next person loads the page they will get the cached copy, so my server bandwidth is saved. It's simple, and best of all it's free!

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

PSK to North America

I was feeling well enough this afternoon to make a few mindless macro exchanges, otherwise known as PSK31 contacts, on 20 metres. Three of those contacts were with stations from across the pond: Brian VE1MC, Peter VE6EPK and Rich K2ZB. As English is their native language, they were prepared to chat, so most of those contacts were actually typed at the keyboard.

The PSK Reporter map shows what I was hearing, and who was hearing me, or rather when they heard me. Peter VE6EPK was in Calgary, Alberta, which is shown by the "41 mins" marker on the screengrab. That was rather a nice bit of DX for 40W to an attic dipole on a day with no sunspots.

I think I may have remarked on it before, but it has always puzzled me why I hear more Europeans, but am heard by more Americans. Perhaps the QRM levels are higher over here, as it is later in the day, rather than anything to do with propagation. On the other hand, I only made those transatlantic contacts because I called them. If I had called CQ I would probably have logged only Europeans.

Tempting Sienna

Ham radio kit builders in the USA have another full-featured HF transceiver kit to choose from - the DZKit Sienna.

Announced over a year ago, the first kits seem to be finding their way to builders now, and reports are starting to appear on the web in builders' blogs. Here you can see some pictures of a Sienna in various stages of construction.

The Sienna appears more complicated to build than an Elecraft K3, but involves some real construction. Some boards use SMT parts, but they are preloaded. The Sienna is modular, and can be built as a receiver, QRP transceiver or with 100W PA. It is available with or without a front panel (for computer control) and may even be built with an internal PC running HRD.

Unlike the Elecraft K3 the Sienna is not a software defined radio. The circuit design appears to be an entirely analogue, triple conversion design with a 20KHz roofing filter at the first IF. I can't imagine that the performance comes anywhere near that of the K3, but I wouldn't be surprised if it sounds better.

DZKit doesn't have a forum where one can see what builders and users are saying about the radio but you can download construction manuals to get an idea of what is involved. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't tempted to order one, but I'd have to sell the K3 to afford it and the K3 is working really well now.

Digital DX heard on 80m

I'm still recovering from the flu. My head feels stuffed with cotton wool, I get tired after even some slight activity and my throat is dry and prickly. So I have not felt like making any contacts on the radio. Instead, I've been doing a bit of WSPR or leaving the receiver monitoring the digital sector of one of the bands and reporting spots to PSK Reporter.

Although I like WSPR because my low powered signals can be received in some surprisingly far away places, in some respects I prefer spotting to the PSK Reporter. I think the reason is because what I am spotting is people making actual two-way QSOs using a normal digital mode, not something designed to be dug out of the noise by a computer. The stations I receive are stations I could probably have a contact with. I've been spotted in Tasmania on WSPR using 2 watts to a magnetic loop, but I'd be extremely surprised if I could make a CW contact over that distance using the same power and antenna.

Last night I left the K3 and Fldigi running on 3.580MHz, and the screenshot above shows all the stations I spotted in that period. I was extremely pleased to see that I spotted KB1OIQ in Massachusetts and KP4ED in Puerto Rico, both in the early hours of the morning, especially as no other G station active at that time reported any activity from across the Atlantic. My 80m antenna is a 50 foot (16m) long end loaded dipole with about 30KHz 2:1 SWR bandwidth, zigzagged into my attic with the middle section at about 25 feet (8m). I would not expect it to produce very much in the way of DX, and even with the necessary assistance of the MFJ noise canceller the noise level is quite high on that band.

I'm not much of a night owl and the thought of hauling myself out of a warm bed in the small hours to see if I can work some transatlantic DX on 80m does not fill me with a lot of enthusiasm. But if I find myself unable to sleep one night, perhaps I'll try it just to see if it's possible.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Black Widow paddle for the HB-1A

A few weeks ago I emailed Jerry, W5JH, who makes the Baby Black Widow paddle kits for the Elecraft KX1 and QRP Kits PFR3 to ask whether he had considered making one for the very similar HB-1A. He asked for some measurements which I duly sent and he produced a prototype which attaches to the steel case of the radio using magnets.

The cost will be $42.50 plus shipping. However, Jerry needs at least 10 HB-1A owners to commit to purchase. He posted some information about the key in the HB-1A users Yahoo group but there is no evidence so far of any interest from members (though it's possible some emailed him directly.)

I think that a paddle that attaches to the HB-1A would be a great accessory for use in the field and it would be a shame for this product idea to be stillborn for lack of interest.