Monday, December 31, 2012

Happy New Year

I prefer looking forward to looking back over the year so I'm not going to indulge in a long navel-gazing retrospective of 2012. Nor will I be making any new year's resolutions for 2013 as if I did I expect most of them would be broken for perfectly good reasons whilst other things will be achieved that I haven't even thought of yet.

The only thing important enough for me to make a resolution about is to keep on getting healthier and beating that brain tumour into submission! If I could get my driving licence back and regain access to the Great Outdoors that would make me happier than I could possibly say.

I wish all my readers good health and happiness above all else in 2013. See you next year!


I told Tim, G4VXE, about the trouble I was having getting a USB TV dongle to work as a VHF/UHF SDR and he emailed me a couple of files. One of those was an installation script which I suspect is the same one mentioned in the article "Cheap and Easy SDR" in the January 2013 QST which a couple of people mentioned. I had read this article at least twice and then forgotten all about it, which is a shame as it would probably have saved me several hours of abortive messing about.

I ran the script once and it seemed to work but I still could not get anything out of my ezcap dongle. I then used MagiCure to turn back the clock a few days to before I started messing about, and then ran the script again. This time it worked. I ran SDR# and it appeared to be working. I set the frequency to somewhere in the FM broadcast band and within a couple of minutes I was listening to Classic FM on 99.9MHz in stereo.

SDR# receiving BBC Radio 3 in the FM broadcast band
This was all very good, but I have any number of radios able to receive FM radio. I wanted to try receiving ADS-B aircraft beacons. But although both ADSB# and RTL1090 (ADS-B decoders) seemed to work (i.e. didn't display any error messages) they were not decoding any data. I used SDR# to monitor 1090MHz, the ADS-B frequency, and I could not see or hear any signals, though I have no idea what they are supposed to sound like.

I decided to reinstall the second dongle which had worked as a TV receiver. Then, on a whim, I thought I would try running SDR# to see if it would connect with the other dongle. To my great surprise, it did. What's more, it seemed much livelier (more sensitive) than the ezcap dongle. I tried both RTL1090 and ADSB#. Both worked and immediately started decoding packets! I started up ADSBScope and within a few seconds aircraft began to appear on the screen!

ADSBScope plotting aircraft overhead at G4ILO
After a while I got cocky and decided to see if there were any other free aircraft-plotting applications I could try, so I downloaded VirtualRadar. After a bit of trial and error I found the right settings to connect with ADSB# and I was soon seeing the aircraft passing overhead plotted on a Google map.

VirtualRadar plotting aircraft overgead at G4ILO
Strangely enough, both RTL1090 and ADSB# think they are talking to the ezcap dongle! Not surprising I suppose as I have not installed any other drivers. It would be nice to be able to use the equipment as a TV receiver as well but I suspect that would break everything! I should probably quit while I am still ahead.

Both ADSBScope and VirtualRadar are nice applications, and I couldn't say one is better than the other. VirtualRadar runs as a web server and you have to point a web browser at it to see the display. It shows more information such as the starting and destination locations of many aircraft, which is interesting. But curiously VirtualRadar does not display aircraft callsigns (like G-ADSB) while ADSBScope does.

This is looking to be an academic question as this morning ADSBScope has decided to stop working. It won't talk to either RTL1090 or ADSB# but complains repeatedly about a "comm error." Ah well, at least VirtualRadar and SDR# are still working.

Saturday, December 29, 2012


I hope all of you had a very good Christmas. I was not very well a couple of days before the holiday. Nothing to do with my cancer, I'm glad to say, but possibly a result of all the treatment for it. I'm feeling a lot better now, but have got to have more tests and may have to go into hospital for removal of gallstones or kidney stones - I'm not sure which as I've been told I have gallstones but I have had some sharp pain in the kidney area. As a consequence of this I haven't felt much like getting up at a reasonable hour to start the beacon monitor or HF APRS gateway.

Creative Design New FM+DAB USB DVB-T RTL2832U+R820T
Before Christmas my interest was piqued by Tim G4VXE's adventures using cheap digital TV dongles as receivers for, amongst other things, aircraft spotting. The first dongle I ordered was described as a Creative Design New FM+DAB USB DVB-T RTL2832U+R820T with antenna, and cost just over six quid!

EZCAP eztv645 RTL2832U / FC0013 USB DVB-T Digital TV Dongle
After a bit more reading up on the subject I began to doubt that this would be compatible with the software everyone was using so I ordered a second one, described as an EZCAP eztv645 RTL2832U / FC0013 USB DVB-T Digital TV Dongle for WIN7 LINUX SDR which was a massive £8.68 including postage from Hong Kong.

Both arrived yesterday. I tried the ezcap first, but my shack PC didn't like the mini-disc that came with it so I was unable to test it as a TV receiver. Following the instructions for the aircraft decoders I installed the driver using zadig_xp, then downloaded and ran rtl1090 which is a decoder for the ADSB packets. This seemed to work - no error messages appeared - but nothing else happened. To display the aircraft data that I hoped to receive I downloaded ADSBScope and installed it. I then spent a lot of time trying various options to connect ADSBScope with rtl1090 but got nowhere. I also tried SDRSharp in the hope that I could use the dongle as a VHF/UHF SDR, and ADSBSharp as an alterntive to rtl1090. But neither of them received anything.

After a while I gave up, disappointed. I then installed the Creative Design dongle and its software. A scan for channels found about 55 TV channels with its quarter wave antenna hung in the window. So it was obviously working. Just not with any of the SDR or ADSB software, as I had suspected.

This morning I tried installing the ezcap software CD that my shack PC couldn't read on another computer. The software installed perfectly on this laptop so I plugged in the dongle and hung the antenna in the window. The software scanned for channels and found precisely nothing. I think this proves conclusively that I have a duff ezcap dongle. Ah, eBay!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Winter blues

I like Christmas, but with that sole exception I hate this time of year. The short days, when it's dark at breakfast time, dark at tea time, and in between the sun struggles to reach an elevation where it can be seen over the tops of neighbouring houses.

It's not just the daylight the sun fails to make much impact on. There's next to no propagation on any of the higher HF bands. I believe that LF band enthusiasts have their best time at this time of year. But I have never been lucky enough to have an antenna for the LF bands. My attic multiband dipole will work on 80 metres but it is shortened so much that the usable bandwidth is barely 60kHz. It is really only usable on the QRP CW frequency and the PSK31 operating frequencies.

Yesterday I thought I would try some digital work on the 30m band. I couldn't hear any PSK31 at first but I did hear some JT65 so I thought I would try that. I made three QSOs including one with N4ABN which I thought was quite good nfor mid-morning. The trouble with JT65 is that I find it difficult to maintain concentration. It's 50 seconds before anything is decoded, and during that time my mind has drifted off and I have missed the moment when I should have responded.

Just as an aside, I noticed a quirk with the JT65-HF software. I don't use CAT control of my K3 (never could get it to work) so I have to set the frequency of the radio and the software manually. But whenever I did this, after a few seconds the frequency would reset itself to 0. I happened to notice that the frequency was being displayed with a comma as the decimal separator. I had left the PC configured like that after testing the fix for the problem with KComm. On a hunch, I reset the separator to a dot (period) and lo and behold the frequency stayed as I set it. I'm surprised that no-one seems to have spotted this but at least we know now how to fix it.

After making a bit of a meal of three JT65 QSOs I decided to switch to PSK31. Although it is not such a good mode for DX, if proof were needed, there were 3 or 4 spots of me on JT65A in the USA but my PSK31 at slightly higher power never penetrated beyond Western Europe.

I do find PSK31 a more rewarding mode to operate, though, because you do usually find out something about the other operator or his station. Having said that, has anyone noticed a trend towards shorter QSOs in PSK31? Quite often now it's name, report, qth, locator and goodbye. Whilst I can't say I miss knowing the make and model of the operator's computer and the colour of the interface cable, I do like to know what power they are running and what antenna they are using.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The accidental QRPer

HF band conditions are not all that good at the moment. I was on 20m (in itself an indication that conditions on the higher bands are poor) and tried to call a couple of US stations but all I got was QRZ? I heard Jarda OK1DMZ calling CQ and he was a strong signal so I replied. Back came a 599 report. It was only when I sent the station details and sent my power that I realized I had it set to 5 watts!

I've lost count of the times I've found myself accidentally operating QRP because the rig was set to 5 watts after having been WSPRing at that power level. In better conditions I've made several contacts before realizing my mistake, which just shows that QRP does not always result in having a weak signal. But when conditions are like they are at the moment, power helps!

Monday, December 17, 2012

What's up with CS3B?

Looking at my IBP beacon monitor pages over the last couple of days I have noticed an odd thing. I am not receiving the Madeira beacon CS3B on 17m at all.
Extract from G4ILO beacon observations
Either my multiband dipole has a very sharp null in that direction (which I think is unlikely as an indoor antenna probably receives enough reflections not to have any sharp nulls) or the beacon isn't transmitting any signal on that frequency.

A quick check around other beacon monitor pages and I can't see any spots of CS3B on 17m at all. Should I tell someone?

Saturday, December 15, 2012

A periodic problem

I had an email from a KComm user from Russia today. He reported that when he clicks on a spot in the DX Cluster window the message "Invalid floating point operation" appears.

I guessed immediately what the cause of this was. It's a problem that has been the bane of my life ever since I started programming as a hobby. In most of Europe the character used for the decimal point is a comma, not a dot (or period as our American friends say.) If your program is being used in a European country, adopts the correct regional settings and then reads some data expressed in the US or British way (such as the frequency in a DX Cluster spot) when it tries converting data to a binary floating point value it will come up with an error. If the European Union was actually any use you might think they would have standardized the representation of numbers by now, but hey...

If you are affected by this issue then a workaround is to use the Regional Settings in Control Panel to change the decimal separator to a dot instead of a comma. I've looked at the KComm source code and fixing the problem doesn't look as if it is going to be easy so a solution may be a little while in coming.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The 1,000th post

Blogger tells me that this blog contains 999 posts, which must make this one the one-thousandth. When I started blogging almost four years ago back in February 2009 I had no idea that it would go on for so long.

Of course, the events of 18 months ago gave me every reason to believe I would never achieve such a total. Fortunately fate, having given me a metaphorical kick in the crotch, decided to smile on me after all and so I have defied the doctors' predictions. Slowly but surely I have been going from strength to strength, so that I think I have a fighting chance of going on for at least another 1,000.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of my readers, especially those who comment or email, without whom the whole business of blogging would be a waste of time. I am particularly grateful to the many who sent messages of encouragement which were a great morale booster to both Olga and myself during a difficult time.

I hope you will all keep reading this as well as my "brain tumour blog" One Foot in the Grave, which is rapidly approaching a milestone of its own. I hope I will keep on "beating the bastard" and carry on blogging (and hamming) for years to come.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

QSLs received

QSL cards received by G4ILO 13 Dec 2012
I received a batch of cards from the QSL Bureau this morning. Here are a few of the more colourful.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

RSGB Centenary

It's fashionable for British hams to knock the RSGB. But I have never been much influenced by fashion.

The RSGB will be 100 years old in 2013. No doubt there will be all sorts of celebrations, a special event station and so on.

To mark the occasion I will display the RSGB centenary badge on my blog and my website until the end of 2013. I think it would be a good idea if more RSGB members who have blogs and web pages did the same.

Here is a snippet of code to make it easy for you to add this to your website:
It's an image not text so you can't cut and paste it - Blogger kept interpreting it as HTML code so this was the only way I could find to include it!

China on a handheld

Today was cold and frosty. I was sitting downstairs in the warm browing through my newly-arrived January 2013 RadCom. In the shack my K3 was listening for beacons, my K2 was being a Robust Packet APRS gateway on 30m and my TM-D710 was being the local VHF APRS gateway whilst the other side of this dual band radio was running my Echolink node and logged in to the IRELAND conference (Echolink's equivalent of D-Star's reflectors.)

The Baofeng UV-3R+ on the table burst into life and I heard Wu, BG6RRN making a call. No-one replied to him so I called back. And so I found myself having a chat about Chinese radio equipment with a Chinese radio amateur using a Chinese handheld!

Wu spoke pretty good English - better than my Chinese anyway! He asked what I thought about Chinese radio equipment and I replied as diplomatically as possible that I liked it because it was cheap but the quality control could sometimes be better. Wu was familiar with the UV-3R+ I was using to link into my Echolink node and said that they were very popular in China as well.

Wu told me that he has had an Icom IC-7000 transceiver for a month but had so far not made any European contacts. He has never tried PSK31 so I encouraged him to try it. I hope I'll hear him on the HF bands one day. Today's chat may not have been a proper radio QSO but I do enjoy the opportunities Echolink provides to talk with hams with whom I would not otherwise make contact.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A bug in KComm

Today started off with me continuing to compare the two morse decoders MRP40 and CW Skimmer in view of PC4T Paul's insistence that the latter was the better morse decoder. When I heard someone calling CQ with no takers I took pity on them and returned their call. JY4NE and C6AKQ went into the log very quickly, in fact so quickly I was left wondering if I had actually worked them. Some people moan that all digital mode operators do is exchange macro files, but in a lot of CW QSOs you barely exchange anything!

Next I replied to a Russian station who was a bit more chatty. Unfortunately my logging program KComm locked up in mid-QSO. It was embarrassing because I was sending from the keyboard and didn't even have a key plugged into the transceiver so I couldn't continue. I'm sure there will be people who would add me to a blacklist for this, but these days I tend to treat CW as just another digital mode. Hence my interest in good decoder programs. :)

KComm has a feature where you can insert the answer to a multiple choice question into the outgoing text. It is expressed like this: %?question|answer 1|answer 2|answer3? which would cause a box to pop up saying "Question" and you click on the answer you want inserted. It was this feature that was causing the program to lock up.

After a couple of hours tracing code in the debugger I could not see what the error was, unless it was a bug in the Lazarus library software. The feature had been in KComm since many versions ago, but this current version was compiled with a new version of Lazarus, so that was a possible explanation. Eventually I managed to modify my program code to avoid the error, with the result that this afternoon there is now a version 2.02 of KComm.

I tested the update by having a QSO with Mik EW8O in Belarus. Then I decided it was time for a rest - I find debugging code these days is mentally exhausting!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Best Morse Decoder

For several years now  I have been of the opinion that the best Morse decoder for Windows PCs is MRP40 by Norbert Pieper. A few days ago Paul PC4T commented to one of my posts that he thought CW Skimmer was better so I thought I would give it a try in case I was missing out.

MRP40 decoding some Morse
I ran both programs simultaneously decoding the same signal. After listening to many QSOs I am still of the opinion that MRP40 is the best decoder. It decoded text more accurately and the spacing between words was better - CW Skimmer would often run words together then insert a space in the middle of a word. Skimmer also seemed on occasion to insert an spurious E at the beginning of some words or calls when I didn't hear an extra dit.

MRP40's decoder is less laggy than CW Skimmer's - text appeared sooner after it was sent. I also found MRP40's AFC useful in locking on to signals. It could track drifting stations and would adjust itself precisely to the signal if you didn't click exactly on the trace. CW Skimmer seemed more fussy and didn't decode a signal unless you got it spot-on. This is perhaps understandable given that Skimmer is intended to be able to distinguish between multiple signals in a pile-up.

CW Skimmer is the better program if you want to decode all the calls in a swathe of spectrum and if you want to link to your logging program so as to highlight new countries or prefixes and mark stations you've previously worked. That is, after all, what it has been designed to do. But as a morse decoder pure and simple MRP40 is still the winner in my book.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Beacon monitor failure

After wasting most of the weekend trying to get it to work I have abandoned the idea of monitoring the IBP beacons using Faros. Although I did have it working with my Elecraft K3 I did not want to tie up this expensive transceiver on such a task. But my efforts to get my FT-817 working with this software came to nothing.

The first problem was getting Faros to control the FT-817. It uses a program called Omni-Rig to do this. The solution - no thanks to the developer who has still not replied to my plea for help - turned out to be a bad FT-817.ini file installed with Omni-Rig. I tried other programs to verify that my FT-817 CAT interface was working properly. I even ran the same developer's CW Skimmer software which also uses Omni-Rig, and which controlled the FT-817 just fine. The idea of looking to see if there was a different FT-817.ini file was just a flash of inspiration.

Having got Faros controlling the radio the second and final problem was getting it and the Yaesu talking to the same sound card. This did work if I used the computer's built-in sound card, but that is normally used by my K3. I have several radios in my shack, most of which are connected to the shack PC and all of the others use various USB sound devices. Whilst all of my other software - including my own program KComm - produce a drop-down list showing distinguishable names of all these devices, Faros displays a list showing three lines that all say "USB Sound Device." I tried selecting each one of them in turn, but I could not get Faros to talk to the sound device that was actually connected to the FT-817.

If it was confusing for me trying to choose from identically named devices, it also seemed to confuse Windows, which ended up sending PSK31 audio out of the PC speaker instead of to my K3! I had to reboot the computer to get sound using the correct devices again. At this point I threw in the towel and admitted defeat. Some things just aren't worth the hassle.

So endeth my attempt at beacon monitoring.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Print me an enclosure

Picture from
Jason, NT7S has just posted an article entitled "3D Printed Enclosures" on his blog. As a ham with a drawer full of unboxed projects who has often spent hours searching for suitable enclosures for a project and only finding ones that are either a wee bit too small or miles too big, the idea of being able to make my own custom enclosures is very appealing.

I had heard about 3D printing before, but thought it was either an April Fool spoof gone wild or one of those blue sky ideas that never become reality. My (admittedly cursory) searching has so far failed to turn up any articles that explain how it works, who makes 3D printers or what they cost. (However the site from which the picture was taken,, looks like a good place to start.)

A radio on every port

I left Faros running overnight. I needn't have bothered: Nothing whatever was heard on the bands 14 - 28MHz from 1730 yesterday until 0730 this morning. Even now, the Finland beacon OH2B is the only one making much of a showing on the lower 3 bands, though there is a flicker of a signal from VK6RBP on 15m. I haven't interrupted beacon monitoring to take a listen on 10m yet but prospects for the ARRL 10m contest don't look very good.

I am going to have to interrupt beacon monitoring some time soon. I need to yank the shack computer out to install a spare 2-port RS232 board to give me two more real serial ports. I should have left it in instead of replacing it with the 4-port board whose four serial ports are now all used up (K2, K3, TM-D710 TNC for 2m APRS and TM-D710 Echolink control, since you ask.) I want to use my FT-817 for beacon monitoring as it is a bit of overkill to use my K3 for this, and the FT-817 CAT cable I have has a DB-9 for a real serial port. I could always use a USB to serial adapter of which I have three, or even make up a USB cable using a wire-ended USB-to-serial plug. But USB ports are in equally short supply, as you might imagine. Whilst the cover is off the computer I will take the opportunity to hoover out the inside which has an amazing ability to attract dust!

Being able to use the 817 for beacon monitoring won't solve the conflict between monitoring and operating as I still have only one suitable antenna for both tasks. But it will allow me to give the K3 a rest!

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Beacon monitor back online

For the time being I have put my IBP Beacon Monitor page back online. As I mentioned in a previous post, this is really something that needs to run 24/7 to be of most value. I note that I am not the only beacon monitor who states that monitoring runs only when not otherwise using the radio and antenna. So perhaps I will manage to keep it going for a bit longer than previously.

I updated the list of other beacon monitoring stations at the bottom of the page, deleting those that did not appear to be active. The official NCDXF/IARU International Beacon Project beacon monitors page has a lot of dead links on it.

It's interesting to take a look and see what propagation is like in other parts of the world. It's a pity there aren't more beacon monitors in the USA. And is propagation really that good in VK-land?

I like the additions F4CWH has made to his beacon monitor pages. I wonder if he would share with me how he has done it? I would particularly like to indicate which beacons are off the air. Three of them. including the one on the east coast of the USA (New York) are not operating at the moment.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

YouView or not YouView

This post is nothing to do with ham radio. However it is about radio - or rather TV - and the internet, and I'm pretty sure some of my readers know more than I do about this subject.

Here's the thing. A few days ago TalkTalk - our telecoms and broadband provider - sent us a letter offering a free YouView box as a sop for the tariff going up. If I understand correctly, a YouView box would provide us with two things that we don't currently get from our plain old Freesat box: the ability to record programmes (our Freesat box isn't one with a hard drive in it) and the ability to catch up on already broadcast programmes using things like BBC iPlayer.

If we want to watch programmes after they have been broadcast then we have to use iPlayer or whatever on our computers, of which we have about six in the house already, not counting the old Toshiba laptop I run DOS on to program Motorola radios or the other slightly less old Toshiba laptop that has a whole column of dead pixels in the middle of its display. I haven't tried connecting one of the computers to the wide screen TV in the living room and watching BBC iPlayer that way. We watch it on the computer screen if we want to. If we want to record programs for later viewing we need to buy a newer more expensive version of our Humax Freesat box.

A YouView box would cost £299 so it's quite an attractive deal to get one free. The question is: would we be able to use it without a lot of hassle?

If I understand correctly, in order to use a YouView box we would need two things that we don't already have: a digital terrestrial TV antenna (we get all the TV channels we need on Freesat) and an Ethernet connection to our router accessible from where the TV is (because apparently YouView doesn't have a wi-fi adapter.) Obtaining these would entail a fair amount of extra expense on hardware (i.e. the cost of having a TV aerial installed, and some kind of wi-fi adapter or a long and ugly piece of Ethernet cable.) Nor do I know whether YouView would need the same type of TV input already being used by the Freesat box, namely the HDMI input.

So my thinking is that it's not worth the cost and hassle. Getting stuff like this to work usually results in my tearing my hair out - and it's only just started growing back! But then I'm not the one who cares if we miss Strictly Come Dancing because we are out or some other show that clashes with something else we're watching. Perhaps I shouldn't look gift YouView boxes worth £300 in the mouth. Your thoughts, multimedia experts?

A musical interlude

If you had wondered why there have been no posts for several days, the reason is that Olga and I have been away. That is not information I want to broadcast in advance. But I'm back now and normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.

Actually it won't as I am not doing WSPR at the moment. I'm running Faros and monitoring the IBP beacons. Unfortunately this is an activity that does not result in publishable output unless you run it 24 hours a day 7 days a week. My only suitable antenna is the multiband dipole. I can't spare that 24/7 unless I never go on the air to make contacts so much as I'd like to restore the beacon reception reports I can't.

The reason for my absence was that Olga and I went for a long weekend city break in Manchester. It was the first time we have been away since I became ill with the brain tumour. So it was good to be back resuming a normal life.

We went to three concerts at the Royal Northern College of Music, including the finals of the RNCM piano competition. We enjoyed them very much. I envy people who live in Manchester because the city has a full and lively cultural life. Between the RNCM, the Bridgewater Hall and the Lowry in Salford you could go to concerts every day of the week! Greater Manchester is home for several colleges and universities so there is a big student population and it is uplifting to see so many young people about. Here in Cockermouth we do have the Lake District but someone I know was not wide of the mark when he described it as "a cemetery with lights."

We stayed at Roomzzz Aparthotel right in the centre of Manchester and we liked it very much. We had a studio apartment which was very, ahem, roomy with a huge bed and a double walk-in shower plus a kitchen with all mod cons including a dishwasher. There was a wide screen TV which was also the display for an in-room Apple Mac so I needn't have bothered taking my Android Tablet. We thoroughly recommend this hotel and will certainly stay there again the next time we visit.