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.

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.

Year and a Day

Personally, I subscribe to the “one year and one day” concept in matters of learning a vocation, skill, belief, or hobby. During that period, a person is considered an initiate, a neophyte, a newbie. They may know a few things, but they’re only learning. They can’t be promoted to higher levels of trust during this lockout period; they have to pay with time and dedication. By no means are they to be considered a journeyman or a master of their class.

So January 20 came and went, and I forgot to write up a thing. January 20 is the one year anniversary of my first amateur radio grant, a Technician Class license (General Class upgrade came in April). I’ve been a ham for over a year and a day. I’ve gone through a heavy bit of learning by the books to shore up my knowledge and comprehension of radio communications, but the true learning comes by experience. I have to actually do the thing to know the thing, and this past year has been a lot of that.

I wish I knew more, did more, understood more, talked more, made more contacts. Even at my age, I feel like I still need to earn my stripes to gain some levels of respect in myself and from others. If I’m going to be talking the talk, I better be walking the walk. People ask me for advice, but more than half of it isn’t backed by any personal experience. Without experience, I’m just a blustery blunderbuss spouting off what I believe to be true. In the back of my mind, I can feel the real pros rolling their eyes when they listen in.

On my anniversary evening, I was asked to host the AARC ElmerNet because the usual host, Jeff N5MNW, was down with illness. I was glad for the privilege to do so, and thankful that he thought well enough of me to ask for a fill-in. I think it’s apropos that this happened on my year-and-a-day.

I’m no longer an initiate. I’m set loose from the nest to fly on my own. Learning is life-long.

So, from my QTH, to the F2 layer, and down to you all. 73.

A Day In the Field

If anybody’s keeping tabs on my good decisions for this year, you can add another to the list: I participated in the ARRL Field Day exercise this past weekend, and it was time well-spent.

Lighted sign and knife switch, ready to burn like an Olympic flame during the event.

Field Day is a 24-hour contest where amateur radio clubs and ad-hoc groups go into the field (or anywhere that’s not their permanent operating station) to raise their antennas and run their radios on emergency power while making as many contacts as possible for points. The goal of Field Day is to help hams stretch their legs and train to operate in adverse conditions, ostensibly to prepare for emergency communications. One of the benefits of amateur radio is reaching into or out of disaster areas in times of crisis, and Field Day is among the best ways to prove that you’re up to the task before you ever have to need it.

The Austin Amateur Radio Club set up operations in the American Red Cross office near the Mueller district in Austin. We had 3 radios running under the W5KA station callsign, all powered by the Austin Energy solar demo trailer. Overall, we made just over 300 contacts, working almost all 50 states, half of the Canadian provinces, and even some Caribbean countries like the Virgin Islands. It’s not as many contacts as most clubs, but it was a herculean effort considering the modest turnout by club members and visitors alike.

Vertical antenna for CW in white on left, 40M inverted V dipole for digital in black on right.
Primary mast on trailer with 2M Yagi, 6M Yagi, and 40M dipole which carried the bulk of our voice contacts.
Austin Energy solar demo trailer, with voice antenna mast in the background.

On a personal note, the benefit of the weekend was in the effect it had on me. It started by just showing up. I got there Saturday morning to help raise the antennas and set up the radios, and I spent the rest of the day on-site to work a handful of contacts and be with others to share knowledge with my fellow new hams and to learn a massive amount of material from the elmers running the event. I went home for a few hours overnight to sleep off the exhaustion, but came back later the following morning to continue with the group and help break down at the end of the contest.

I’ll go on record to say that the event was transformative. I participated and learned. I volunteered and helped as often as possible. I got my hands dirty and paid in sweat equity. I worked holes into my leather gloves and made use of hard hats and hammers. I got exposure to new antenna designs and learned how to jump into an on-air pileup and get a contact in the noise. I had a great opportunity to work with a body of people that was neither a corporation nor a church camp. This group serves some other purpose, and that’s a refreshing change. It’s new air to breathe.

The lessons I’m learning are paying off. Today I took my radio to the park and worked 6 contacts where usually I’d get only 1. I’m honing the craft. I’m growing. That is its own profit.

I look forward to next year’s Field Day, and hope I can get some of you to join in too.

A big and heartfelt thank you to members Jeff, Lew, Stu, Bob, and everybody else whose names and calls I can’t remember who ran the event and made it work fabulously despite the hardships. Finding creative solutions to difficult problems is the soul of engineering, and you people are filled with that living spirit. Thank you.

C Is for ANSI, That’s Good Enough for Me

In a bid to expiate myself, I’m currently reading “The C Programming Language, Second Edition.” Written by Brian Kernighan and Dennis Richie, the inventors of the language, this book is the bible when it comes to learning the language. Most modern languages owe their existence to this one. All modern operating systems are primarily written in C. Most client applications are written with C’s direct descendants. Since I work at a high technology company, it would behoove me to bother trying to learn it again. Most of the high-level languages I’ve used in the past 2 decades cannot match the speed, specificity, and hardware-level capability of C. But these aren’t reasons enough for me to learn it.

When I say “expiate”, I mean to make amends for failing a semester of C in college. In a class of 3 students, it was difficult to stand alongside my classmates and lean on them for support. When they started excelling, I fell behind and somewhere around a month after learning about pointers and indirect references, I just gave up. I swore I’d never bother learning the language again. But that’s all changed now. I could do well if I could wrap my head around it and succeed where I failed before.

What bothers me is I still have a lack of support from my fellow programmers. Even the guys who I thought would support my decision to take up the language again are saying things like, “Man, why are you messing around with C?” or “You must really want to punish yourself.” I say they’re missing the point. I’ve had my time with the high-level languages. I know that I can split a sentence into an array of words in three lines in Perl; I know that doing the same in C would require a bit of memory allocation, a handful of variable declarations, and a set of functions to perform each bit of the search and copy operation. But you know what? I don’t care. I’m getting thrilled with seeing how it all actually happens under the covers of all the other languages.

I want to succeed in this. I want to use C to make stuff that runs fast. I want the chance to flip bits in hardware without needing special libraries. I want to have a shallow learning curve if I decide to go into microcontroller programming. Some people put puzzles together; I have this.