Tower

If I ever get too cocky and think I know lots of things very well and have a full grasp of the world and all the things in it, I need merely to practice Morse code to knock myself off my high horse.

Radio is hard.

Pinch To Talk

Behold my score from Austin Summerfest:

MFJ-564 iambic paddle

I’ve had an iambic paddle on my ham radio grocery list for a while, and now I have one. I guess this means I have to get better at Morse Code to be able to use it frequently. Right?

All shined up and ready to go out.

Picked it up second-hand for about forty bucks. To make it mine, I removed the 1/4″ plug and soldered my own 1/8″ plug to make it compatible with my Yaesu FT-857. Then I tore it down and gave it a complete spit-shine with alcohol wipes, eyeglass cleaner, and a lot of polishing.

I noticed this paddle is representative of the mid-grade build quality of some MFJ products: the heavy metal base is merely chrome-plated, and some of the base has small pock-mark oxidation. The nylon insulators and pivots are a little worse for wear. Some of the adjustment screws could use a dot of threadlock to keep them from walking out of their loose tolerances. But, overall, it’s still solid and highly usable.

Piiiiinch For Looooong and Shoooort Beeps Aaaauuu-to-maaaa-tic-lyyy

To operate any paddle, you simply press sideways in one direction to make a “dit” and the other to make a “dah”. What makes this “iambic” is that there are two paddles, one for dit and one for dah, and if you squeeze both at the same time, you get an automatically-generated string of “dit-dah-dit-dah-dit-dah“, much like the iambic meter you find in poetry.

The paddle itself doesn’t generate beeps. It’s just a specialized switch. You need an external keyer to take the paddle inputs and generate an output for the radio. Luckily, most radios have a keyer circuit built-in. Mine has a bunch of options like key speed and ratio between dit and dah lengths (1:3 is common).

For the record, there is no hard rule for which direction on a paddle is dit or dah. That’s up to the individual to sort out what is comfortable. Many right-handed operators choose to put dit on the left and dah on the right. It can always be reversed by crossing the connectors or using the radio’s menu if it has that option.

Now that I have all I need to send code (a paddle and a straight key), my last obstacle is myself. Knowing how to send is half the equation: I need to learn how to copy code, to hear what someone else is sending and transcribe it (speed experts do it all mentally and even recognize whole words by sound). That’s the hard part, and there’s just no way for me to do it other than with lots of listening practice.

Wish me luck.

Coded Language

After a month of banging my head, fist, and eardrums at it, I think I finally know Morse Code. I mean, it’s pretty shaky, but now I have some aural and mental understanding of the shapes and rhythms of each of the 26 letters, 10 numbers, and some punctuation.

A month after I said I was going to learn…I learned. I’m not going to say it was easy, but modern technology and some tried and tested learning techniques made it possible for this old dog to have a foundational knowledge. Seriously, use an app, any app, that teaches you code using the Farnsworth method (fast characters, long spaces) with characters in the Koch order (letters organized so you learn the subtle differences early), and have a practice code key handy.

Like I said, I’m very shaky, and could easily forget half of it in a day. But from what I understand of modern learning methods, if I could just hammer away at it with long enough sessions, and get some good sleep somewhere in the middle, then I can learn and retain it. And practice, practice, practice.

My next step is to start copying code from live conversations. Luckily, there are endless options. I have an app so I can do it anywhere, and there’s always the CW portion of all the ham bands that I could tune through to find conversations to copy. Listen, find the letters, write the letters, read the text later. That’s an operator’s job. When I can copy with good accuracy, I can start banging it out on my own and call CQ for conversations. Baby steps.

This is a milestone. Now that I kinda know the alphabet, I can work on reading words, sentences, and prosigns. The world of DX is waiting on me.

Soon, very soon.

dah-dit-dah-dit dah-dah-dit-dah

Dit-Dah

I’ve decided that I need to take my radio hobby to a new direction. I have difficulty getting out of the region with my radio and antennas with only voice communications. I haven’t gotten into the digital modes because, honestly, I don’t have a decent laptop to do it. Everything I have is kind of a hack.

If I want to log any sort of long distance (DX) contacts, I’m gonna have to use something that’s not voice. I’m jealous of the stations that talk about logging contacts from South America, Europe, Africa, places all over the world, on 10 Watts or less. I’m over here going “how the hell did they do that? I’m using 100 Watts!” The answer is Morse Code. Once you learn it, it’s fairly easy to make contacts that are readable — the code key turns the radio transmitter on when you key down, so either the radio signal is there, or it isn’t. It’s the most efficient use to radio energy ever.

In that light, what I’m proposing to do is dedicate the month of April 2018 to learning Morse Code. All 26 letters, all 10 numbers, all important punctuation. I want to be able to hear and key the code proficiently by month’s end.

I have a few apps, among them is one called Morse Machine. It’s pretty decent, and it allows me to learn code using the Koch method, which is recommended (it plays symbols at their normal speed with extra space between so I have time to recognize the sound and type the symbol). Once I can demonstrate a high enough proficiency with a few symbols, it unlocks the next group.

My plan is to do this for at least 15 minutes a day, every day. I already got far enough along, but since it’s been a few months since I last tried practicing, I’ve forgotten it all. So this time around, I’m going to clear my training scores and start from scratch. It’s really the only way.

I hope I can get up to at least 10 WPM by month’s end, at least for being able to hear code. I have a practice code key at home with an oscillator so I can pound it out without going over the air. But really, the best practice is to just Get On The Air. But first I need to learn the language.

Wish me luck.

Blast and Blow

To catch you up to date: when I set my radio output to 100W full power in the car with the new mobile antenna, the SWR is so bad that the radio lowers its output power to 40W to save itself.

I experimented with a few hypothetical fixes:

  • Run on 12V battery instead of the car’s power system, in case the power system was actually not able to provide full current; no change. Power system is functional.
  • Disassemble antenna mount and scrape paint layers between adjoining parts for better conductivity; no change. DC conductivity is not the same as RF conductivity.
  • Adjust the ground strap and tighten connections; no change
  • Coil more feedline into 4″ turns as a poor-man’s feedline choke; no change
  • Clamp on a bigger ferrite choke outside the trunk lid and run more turns through it; no change
  • Run the feedline directly into a dummy load (a resistor with a heatsink); success at 100W. The antenna is to blame, and the radio is OK.
  • Insert my manual antenna tuner between the radio and antenna and adjust for best SWR: success at 100W

So, yeah, my initial assumption that I’ll need an automatic antenna tuner unit (ATU) holds up. The issue is that the antenna, the car underneath it, and the ground underneath the car together have the kind of reactance (impedance to alternating current due to inductance or capacitance instead of pure resistance) that causes more energy to get stored in the antenna system and then sent back down the line to the radio. The antenna tuner injects enough of the right kind of reactance to reduce feedback and make the radio happy.

Once I got the manual tuner set right, the radio was able to pump a full 100W on CW. Success. An automatic tuner will make that a breeze.

So tonight I was out and about on a drive. Pulled off the road to raise the antenna and make some tests and contacts on 40 meters. SWR was bad, so I inserted the manual tuner. Instead of digging into my radio box for the pushbutton I typically use to trigger the CW tone, I decided to flip over to FM modulation because, like CW, it has a 100% duty cycle (a solid signal to test power output). With a few keydowns resulting in low power output, I reached over to tweak the tuner knobs and get better SWR. Suddenly, the radio pumped out full power — for 4 seconds before it blinked off and died.

My initial concern was that the radio was fried, or worse, I had fried the custom power circuit I had installed, or even worse, I had killed my car and was stranded in BFE — none was the case, thankfully. The culprit was the 10A fuses I had installed in the inline fuse blocks (I designed the system for 25A fuses, but downgraded to 10A for paranoia reasons).

10A X 13.8V = 138W

138W is realistically more than my radio should consume, but there are losses inside the radio, voltage drops in the power line, and FM modulation spreads the signal out over a 3KHz bandwidth and consumes more power than CW signals.

So there you have it. I fried my first fuse.

Once I made it home in silent humility, I replaced the fuses with 15A units which should be able to take the heat and still be safe. I think that should be enough, but time will tell.

I learned a few things this week.