Saturday, June 10, 2017

Better Know a Mode: JT65 and JT9 Part 1/x

JT65 and JT9 are new modes made possible by computers. Back in the halcyon days of the late 90s, the preferred weak signal communication mode was CW. Now, the new JT modes are a popular way to get your Worked All States or at least build a healthy QSL card collection. What's better is that the mode works so well, it's possible to use compromise, HOA-friendly antennas and work the world. Next, if you're an introvert then you'll love this mode. There's nothing to talk about other than the bare basics.

WSJT-X waterfall and JTAlertX showing activity on 40 meters at 0102Z on May 6, 2017

There are compromises for any weak-signal mode, and the JT modes are no exception. They are slow. Transmission cycles run in 1 minute intervals. The messages you can send are limited as well. You're not going to be racking up major contest points using this mode, however for casual operation it is fantastic.

The JT modes were created by Joseph Hootoon Taylor, Jr., Ph.D. Joe is an astrophysicist by trade, and has used binary pulsars to make high-precision tests of general relativity, and has bagged a Nobel for his efforts. He's also an avid amateur radio operator, and created the JT modes as a means of facilitating Earth-Moon-Earth contacts. [1] With JT9 and JT65, you can now work these modes with a modest antenna [2] and patience.

It turns out that weak-signal work is good for traditional HF frequencies too. We'll talk about some of the intricacies o, followed by some details of how to use this fun mode.

The algorithm uses a small shifting tone, that is then used with a Hamming-tree to decode messages. There are many different versions of software out there, and I use WSJT-X. Looking at the source code, there's a lot of Fortran, it's written in C++ with the QT GUI subsystem. It's not easy to read code, either. There are various other versions of implementations of the modes, but these are almost all minor GUI tweaks.

Good Mode For:
  • Ham's who have young children, that cannot go for more than 30 seconds without some sort of interaction. The 1-minute intervals are enough time to change a diaper, make a sandwich, refill a juice box, extract a marble from a nose, etc.
  • Compromise antenna situations, such as a station in an HOA. I use a 350' Horizontal loop fed with an LDG-600 remote tuner, which I'll talk about in a later post.
  • Those who have a hard time figuring out what to talk to other ham's about.
  • Working the world on 5 watts and a mattress bed-spring
Not a Good Mode For:
  • Rag chewing
  • Making more than one contact in 4 minutes
  • Any message requiring more than 13 characters.
Future posts will include details on how QSOs work, what all the fiddly-bits of the GUI mean, and a general description of the software setup that works for me. I'll also delve into intricacies of getting the software working with the FlexRadio and Kenwood TS-590SG rigs.

[1] If you're not familiar with EME work, it involves sending a large and indecent amount of power at the moon, then listening for other nerds who are trying to do the same thing. In my day, EME was the coup-de-grat of the hobby. It often required massive antennas that made me wonder how many drug dealers were in our fine hobby.
[2] The joke is, "How do you know when your EME antenna isn't big enough? When it didn't blow down in the last wind storm."

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Flex Radio Systems: A Love Letter

FlexRadio Systems is the new belle of the ball in amateur radio. These simple black boxes, festively adorned with a power button, an LED, a headphone jack, and a CW keyer port, are nothing to display prominently. They are controlled almost exclusively with software that you need to run on a Windows PC (more about that later).
Figure 1: The stunning good looks of the Flex 6300

I'm here to tell you they are magical. If you want to know why, I present the following evidence for your consideration:

Figure 2: The entire 40 meter amateur radio band, complete with actual jibber-jabber!

This is a view of the entire 40 meter band. The whole thing. At about 7pm (-7 GMT) you can see that the band is open. On the left you can see a pile-o-CW operators. On the right you see the sideband portion of the band, where I happen to be currently tuned. If I were pre-disposed to contesting [1] this would be a godsend. My radio, the FlexRadio 6300 can handle two of these such views (slices) to monitor and work separate bands at the same time. It even has a transverter output on it, just in case you lose your mind and want to get on VHF/UHF/Microwave for some reason.

Flex has some sticky parts, but being able to pull signals out of the weeds is very helpful when your aspirations of stacked monobanders at 100 feet conflicts with a home owners association's sense of aesthetics [2].

Here are some issues I worked through:

  1. The software only works on Windows PCs, and it's a good idea to make sure you're running a beefy system. I run mine off of a Intel NUC 6i7KYK with a Razer Core external graphics card and a Radeon RX 580 and 32GB of ram. The on-board Intel video card could not keep up with what I wanted to do with it.
  2. The other platforms available are iPads and iPhones. This is awesome for operating from the hot tub, bedroom, or other places where you don't want to sit next to the radio. 
  3. Make sure that your bios, and OS patches are up to date. A lot of problems were resolved for me by updating to the latest software.
  4. The Flex series requires an actual hard-wired network connection. You'll have fewer problems if you don't try to use the software over 100M, 1Gig networks just work better.
  5. Throw away the stock microphone. I wish Flex would just leave this out and knock the 75 cents off of the device. You can get a USB microphone for your PC that is reported to work very well. I use a Heil PR-781 (Yaesu adaptor cable) and I'm happy to report that I still can't make an SSB contact to save my life.

Overall I'm extremely happy with the setup. I don't get much use out of standard radio interfaces, so the PC software makes for very comfortable operating. It helps that my first contact was all the way to Japan on my 350' Horizontal Loop antenna on 40 meters.

I have several half-written Linux implementations of the SmartSDR interface, but it's a complicated enough task that I haven't had a chance to flesh it out completely.

[1] I'm not into contesting. I am happy to say that I made my first official entry into the RTTY-roundup sometime earlier this year. I made one contact. Mostly I was just testing the Ham Radio Deluxe program's multiple call-book feature.
[2] My HOA does not like antennas that are required by the FCC's concessions to the TV/Radio broadcasting industry.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Get on the Air Part 1 - Technician License

Congratulations on your first ham radio license. This is an intimidating hobby and I hope this will be a rough guide to what to do on the bands. I'll talk about my first few years in the hobby, my renewed interest, and then my third and current activity.

There are a couple of paths you can go down, decided by your current license, budget, available real estate, comfort with a soldering iron, the phase of the moon, etc. I'll break down the path to success here for both the VHF/UHF Technician parts, and HF. My preference is HF, because who doesn't like talking to their neighbors in the next state over about their heart conditions after having a few too many cold ones?


This is what you'll need to get started. It's only the minimal, low-cost way to get on the air. You can obviously go nuts here. I'll save building your own radios for a later blog post.

  1. Get a handy-talkie, handheld, or whatever the kids call them today. My first HT was a Radio Shack HTX-101 and it ran on 32 AA batteries (exaggerating only slightly). It was roughly the size of a European brick (which is smaller than a standard American brick, and probably doens't exist), and had a BNC antenna connector on it. Later in life I had a Yaesu VX-6R, mid 2000's variant. The VX-6R was built by a brick. Unfortunately by the time I acquired it I was A) living in a small town with an inactive ham community B) More interested in HF work and C) I didn't really want to sit in the rain watching runners pass by. Be careful about any radio sold on Amazon. They are either extremely low quality, or knock-offs. Work directly with Ham Radio Outlet, DX Engineering, or other reputable dealers.
  2. Connect your new radio to the antenna, power supply, microphone, or any other accessory you want to use
  3. Figure out what the local repeaters are in your area. Once you've got them, program it into your radio and then you're ready to go. Remember repeater's have offsets, tones, and other things that require setup.
  4. Marvel at how wonderfully and universally bad all radio documentation is. Give up and go to Google to figure out how to program it.
  5. Make your first call! I will talk about how to do this later.
Making Your First Call

First start by listening. If someone else is using the repeater, and just happens to be pausing to take a pull off of a Cold One, don't be the noob that interrupts. I recommend listening for 30 seconds or so before assuming the channel is clear. Identify, saying something like "URCALLSIGN". In my case I would say "K1HYL". Then listen for someone to say the frequency is in use. If you don't hear anything you're ready to tell everyone you're listening and willing to talk.

VHF, UHF, and other non-HF bands all have a different way of signalling an intention to initiate a contact. Here in the United States, the convention is to say "K1HYL, monitoring" every 5-10 minutes until someone comes back. If you're wondering whether or not your radio is working say, "K1HYL can anyone give me a radio check?" You should here substantive critique of your audio, signal, and operating technique shortly afterwards.

If someone calls back, answer them with their callsign, your call-sign phonetically if you don't know the person, your name, and what radio you're using. After the other person tells you their name, then talk about when you were licensed, what antenna you're using, or other general conversational points. It's traditional to not engage in political conversation, or in general anything controversial in the slightest. 

Then you can jibber-jabber back and forth until you're finished. If you're conversation runs long, be sure to remember to ID. When the repeater, or your other person IDs, do it then.

Ideas for What To Do Next

Try making a digital call, setting up APRS, or talking with the International Space Station. Personally I like the HF bands more. I'll talk about that in a later post. Technicians get access to the old Novice areas of the HF bands. This is a great time to study for your next test.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

What Does the 'Ham' in Ham Radio Mean?

A common question that rears its ugly head periodically is: "What does the 'ham' in ham radio stand for?" Gentle reader, I'm here to answer this question authoritatively for all time in memoriam. It stands for nothing. As near as I can tell the sole purpose of it is to aggrandize the amateur populace into waxing philosophical to no end.

Oh sure there are lots of people free-associating on the meaning of it, there are even stories in the well tread pages of QST and other amateur radio scandal rags. Much ink, and whatever the internet is made of, (puppy blood for the record) has been spilled on this topic.

According to me, here are the candidates:

  1. Ham it up, jerkface! -- This is an old-timey way of saying talk to random people about nothing in a jovial manner. You see this around periodically, with Mr. G. West being the prime offender. I can say with some authority that this is not the correct answer.
  2. Hamateur radio operator -- My personal favorite, but only useful for trolling
  3. Ham handed -- Maybe this refers to the morse code straight key
  4. Someone just likes pork products -- I'm going to chalk this up as the most likely answer.
73 Hamateurs

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Ham Radio: A Nuanced and Subtle Look Into the Depravity of Nerds

Ham Radio, the nerds who other nerds give swirlies to, the nerds that get their heads slammed into lockers by other nerds, that's me. That's what I do for fun. In high school I made the socially adept move of listening to morse code practice tapes during my free time. I enjoy tickling electrons in the upper atmosphere, get them to change their orbits, then have those electrons change orbits again, perhaps reflecting back to the earth, but most likely just annoying my neighbors.

My Grandpa was a ham, and his callsign was K1HYL. When he slipped the surly bonds of earth, I took up his callsign through the FCC's vanity callsign program. I had a pretty cool callsign myself, KC5KGB, but I decided to take his. When I was a nerdling of 16, he took me to Field Day in Keene New Hampshire. Field Day is where you sit with other nerds under a picnic table and awkwardly explain how important your hobby will be in the case of nuclear winter.

Field day is practice for the nuclear winter. Mostly you take your radios that you don't care that much about, haul them into some park, and sweat your butt off while talking to as many people as you can. The idea is that you should use batteries, solar panels, generators, temporary antennas, etc. to make as many contacts as you can.

Me, seated on the left, Field Day 1999 New Mexico Tech Amateur Radio Association

During my first Field Day with my grandpa, I helped to put up antennas. Once, one of the towers had gone up in a park my grandpa proudly said, as loud as he could, "That's the first erection I've had in years!" I loved that guy. I want to be him when I grow up. At this Field Day I came to understand the true unbridled power of a horizontal loop antenna, which I will discuss in a later post.

I was quickly put to work entering stations into a logging program because I could touch type. The laptops (remember this was 1994) were connected through a 100 foot serial cable to another computer in a trailer. Using this, we were able to tell whether a contact was made or not. I was hooked. I wanted more. That's how I got into this hobby.

I'm going to use this page as a way to talk about some of the things that I've learned, the hard way, and to hopefully make things useful for other people. This is a silly hobby that people take way too seriously. I'll make fun of that.

Postscript: I made a JT65 contact with K0STK in North Dakota while writing this post. As near as I can tell Stephen T Kostecke, III is one of four amateur radio operators in North Dakota.

Better Know a Mode: JT65 and JT9 Part 1/x

JT65 and JT9 are new modes made possible by computers. Back in the halcyon days of the late 90s, the preferred weak signal communication mo...