Glazed and Unfazed

Does anybody else who’s into Amateur Radio find that when they talk about it other people’s eyes glaze over? Or is that just me?

I like knowing about this thing, but apparently it’s too crusty for others to consider valid.

I guess as long as it’s the hobby of Grandpa Kindly and Uncle Weirdo, contaminated with the cult of remembering the dead instead of invigorating the living, people will just politely look away when we gush wildly about our passion. We have no juice in the real world. You can smell the desperation on us.

And that’s a shame. It really is a cool hobby.

Misoperator

My primary radio, a Yaesu FT-857, half-died during Field Day, so I sidelined it for debug later and continued with my other HF rig.

Last night, I tore apart the radio and the Signalink attached to it, and dragged my oscilloscope out of storage, in order to probe into why the audio wasn’t modulating any output during Field Day. The Signalink was definitely generating audio, and I followed it from the internal DIP jumper block to the RJ45 connector to the DIN end of the cable. Tried to probe the radio board, but the DIN jack pads are under the board and would take desoldering and unmounting some power transistors from the chassis to reach the underside.

So I connected a dummy load, powered up the radio, changed the internal and external meters to show power and deviation, and sure enough once I set the power over 5W, it was modulating and pushing power out to the load. I think this is just another case where the DIN plug and jack are having connection issues; this has cropped up before.

I guess I’ll either have to replace the DIN jack, or just keep jiggling the cable.

The second issue was more worrisome, because when it happened, it looked like I fried the CAT cable and caused the driver to fritz. Windows alerted that a driver was crashed or incorrect. I can’t remember the exact notification because I had so much going on at that moment. But the PC and the radio were unable to communicate shortly after that. I removed the CAT interface from Device Manager and rediscovered it. Got a different COM port number. Still couldn’t reach the radio.

Then I noticed something in the manual; the CAT port also changes function if you connect it to a linear amp or an antenna tuner, and you have to select which of the three functions that port serves in the menu options. I know I had it set to CAT operation, but I checked again.

I don’t know which dumbass set it to TUN for tuner, but once I changed it back to CAT, the PC was able to talk with the radio. God, what a stupid ass; someone should punch that guy.

In short, the rig works, has always worked, and would continue to work if the operator knew WTF he was doing.

Cancel

In January, at the Schertz TX hamfest, I picked up a little oddity: an MFJ-1026 Deluxe Noise Canceling Signal Enhancer, for $25 cash.

MFJ-1026 Deluxe Noise Canceling Signal Enhancer

This magical box takes the input from the main antenna and mixes it with the input from an auxiliary antenna and allows you to shift and invert the relative phase until a specific QRM signal vanishes. The seller told me it was fine and worked great and that he didn’t need it anymore because he moved his station to a quieter QTH. Whatever. Flea market noise. A search showed it retailed for $240, so if it worked, it was a steal.

It didn’t work.

However, it was repairable. MFJ, in their infinite wisdom, engineered this with a soldered rice-grain lightbulb as a fuse for the auxiliary antenna. If a strong signal from the transmit antenna got into the auxiliary, the bulb would blow and save the preamp. Well, this particular bulb was blown, rendering the unit unusable, so the seller got rid of it on my dime and I profited. I picked up a box of rice-grain bulbs for cheap and soldered one on the board. And it worked, kinda.

Thing is, you have to use an auxiliary antenna that has similar polarity and resonance to your main antenna and is some distance away, or it just won’t work. I found successful configuration to be difficult, so I mothballed the unit.

Every Sunday, the Austin Amateur Radio Club holds a 10-meter net at 3pm CT and, for at least the past half year, there’s been some nearby noise source that spews birdies and wideband noise every 30MHz. One those wideband noise patches lands exactly on top of the net frequency of 28.410MHz.

Every. Damned. Sunday.

So even with my radio’s best noise filtering, attenuation, and DSP processing, it’s still a struggle to hear my Austin neighbors on the net. So I’d had enough. After the debacle of this weekend’s Field Day exercise, where I experienced this QRM for a lot of my failed 10m contacts, I decided to at least give the box another try. This time, instead of using an antenna outside near my main 10m antenna, I opted to use a small, semi-directional magnetic loop inside my apartment.

That was the best decision of the whole Field Day weekend. It worked. It fucking WORKED.

By tuning the mag loop so it was resonant at 28.410MHz, and then rotating the loop and tweaking the amplitude, phase, filter, and inversion controls of the MFJ-1026, I was able to effectively cancel most of the two noise sources near my apartment and knock my noise level from the usual S8 down to S3. That’s a significant improvement, and I was able to join the net and enjoy operating radio as I heard most of my Austin-area contacts.

I don’t care if it’s a hack, but that little box contains some kind of magic. Who fucking knew, eh? I’m not sure if it’s the “right way” to solve the problem, but if I can hear what someone’s got to say, then my job is done. Pragmatism over Idealism, that’s what I say.

I just wish I would’ve done so at the beginning of Field Day and used it as a tool in my box of tricks for hearing contacts. But now I know.

Now. I. Know.

Field Day 2020 In Quarantine

This year’s ARRL Field Day was noticeably tinged with difficulty, problems, and loneliness. The goal of Field Day is to set up our radios with makeshift antennas and operate on emergency power while making as many contacts as possible for 24 hours. Adaptation in the face of adverse conditions is the heart of these field exercises. Unfortunately, because of These Uncertain Times, my radio club was unable to meet for a team event, so those of us who operated did so at our homes.

My hamshack at the hopeful start of contest on Saturday

I decided to get a 2x power multiplier on points by running on battery power for the whole weekend. So I spent time last week measuring the power consumption of my radios, doing some math, and then getting a charger and two big batteries that would float me the entire event. How serious was I about running class 1E (one radio, emergency power)? This serious:

Over 110 Amp-Hours of power. Damn right I’m serious about 1E. Chargers connected to mains power cannot be used during the contest (generator or green power is permitted).

In summary, the power source problem was the easiest problem of the whole weekend. 12V is 12V is 12V, and after I built the cable sets to connect the new batteries to my power distribution block, that was that. These big-boy 35Ah batteries performed perfectly, but I only used one of them with all the transmitting I did on Saturday. The other battery is still unused, and I only used one of the 8Ah medium batteries (in back) just to float me the last hours of the event while working FT8 (digital modes are power hungry). So that’s some wasted money.

Back side of rigs, with big battery going to power distribution, plus a rat’s nest of wires and coax. Manual antenna tuners for power thrift and for false earth ground. Manual antenna switches for ease of band changes. Old modem speaker top center so I wouldn’t wreck my ears with headphones. Icom radio “on the bench” on lower right.

Really, the bigger issue was dissatisfaction. I goosed myself into looking forward to it, and I had hoped to make lots of contacts, but ultimately, even after I had adapted and got over my self-imposed 50W limit and set the radio to 100W, the bands were so crowded with people running 1D (home commercial power) with their linear amplifiers that I just could not break through any pileups to get a contact exchange with most of these loud superstations you find when doing the hunt-and-pounce methods.

  • My 100W is just too weak in a pileup, even though, thanks to logarithmic Decibel scales, it’s only 1 S-unit over 10W on the received side.
  • My homebrew antennas are just that shitty and are too low in elevation for any respectable takeoff angle to be heard by anybody in a pileup.
  • My voice is just too deep for clear comms in a pileup.
  • My 2×3 callsign is just a mouthful when superstation operators are hitting people rapid-fire for contacts in their pileup; when I’m done saying my last “romeo” they’re already deep into an exchange with someone else.

My judgment is that radio contesting is a battle of strength through superior firepower. It favors property owners with space to hang antennas, suburbanites outside of RF-noisy urban centers, and sneaky rule-benders. It’s enough to dissuade anyone casual from serious contesting.

I still tried, though, and managed to get 21 voice contacts and 5 digital contacts, which is more than I’ve ever done on any Field Day (my previous record was last year with 8 QSO’s during the club meet). But still, it feels like an abject failure. My social isolation doesn’t help; I wish I had some ham buddies around to lean on for guidance, or advice, or just some attaboys to get me going again.

When you’re going through failure and are about to give up, a kind word or an admonition to keep going is all it takes to keep going. Just ask any marathon runner, and they’ll tell you the value of people cheering from the roadside.

The biggest problem of the contest was when my Yaesu FT-857 went half-dead. I got an alert on my laptop that the USB-Serial converter had stopped responding. Shortly thereafter, I noticed that the audio going from the USB Signalink interface into the radio was nonfunctional. The Signalink was triggering the PTT, but the radio wasn’t modulating; the sound going into the radio wasn’t doing anything. The front-panel mic was just fine. So something happened with the radio and affected anything connected to it. When setting up, I tried my damnedest to get rid of excess RF in the shack, from using lots of clamp-on ferrite beads on signal and power wires, to stringing wires around my apartment to act as a false earth ground (for better propagation and to cancel RF noise). But with my antennas 20ft away through a sliding glass door, it’s impossible to rid myself of all RF energy, and I think I fried something.

Great, another damn HF radio fried. That makes me 2 for 3.

So I had to put my Icom IC-706mkIIG back into play, even though I had declared it was too power hungry to run on batteries. Adapt again and make concessions. Thankfully, I had previously configured my logging software to control both radios, so it was a simple exercise of connecting the radio and switching the configs. Still it was a pain to deal with, especially in the middle of a contest.

Thankfully it worked, but I wasn’t happy about it.

This morning, I opted to sleep in because I needed it. Woke up with 90 minutes left for the contest, so I started a pot of coffee and a bowl of granola and made a last-ditch effort to rack up points with FT8. That eventually was problematic, because the ancient Signalink interface married to the Icom was having problems holding down the PTT for longer than 4 seconds, so I had to use the “delay” button on its front panel just to keep the PTT closed for the entire 12 second cycle. Another adaptation.

But I got 5 digital contacts. 10 points. 20 after power multiplier.

My experimentation tonight after the contest showed me that the Windows audio output to this device was set too low, and the Windows enhancements like bass boost and loudness control were causing the output signal to drop below the Signalink’s PTT threshold during FT8, thereby cutting my transmissions short at 4 seconds. Once I disabled enhancements and bumped the volume slider up on that mixer, the problem disappeared. But I didn’t know until after the contest event.

Now I know.

Station at the messy end of the contest. 20m FT8 on screen, with Icom control head in front of dead Yaesu. Battery meter in back says 12.4V.

I wish I had known all this would happen and how to fix it beforehand. But no one can predict this. Shakeouts like this are how we know something is misconfigured, broken, or on the edge. If we don’t run our radios in emergency practice scenarios, we cannot possibly expect that they will perform during an actual emergency. I’m dissatisfied and concerned about how my own hardware functioned, even after all the love, money, and time I put into it, but now I know some things. Now I know what its limits are. Now I know what my limits are.

N3FJP Field Day logger, showing 26 QSO’s in total. Meager, but that’s a solo 1E for you.

I know this is an amateur hobby, but I want to get better. If only I could rise above the solitude of it and make real connections, or create a sense of purpose, or something rah-rah like that, then I could enjoy it again. I’m past the wide-eyed learning-about-science phase; now I’m into real learning through actual experiences, and it’s frustrating. I tend to drop my playthings when they resemble actual work, but I need to stop doing that. That’s not how adults should go through the world.

I’ve had a taste of contesting, real contesting. Not with a club, or a team, or anything where someone else sets up the radios, antennas, and software. But for myself. Clubs can’t earn a Worked-All-States award, but I can. I hear my friends talk about chatting with Germans or Australians or Brazilians with a 5W radio and a wire thrown into a tree, and here I am going, “What the fuck am I doing wrong?” Well, I’ve just found a few things I’m doing wrong. It’s time to do them right.