Natural Log

Today I played Radio and won.

Since I have a new laptop for work, I’ve been occasionally moving it from my office desk to the ham bench to mess with digital modes like FT8 and Winlink. But I’ve been waffling on getting logging software and keeping shitty paper logs of my radio contacts to manually enter elsewhere, because I come from the FOSS world where building my own software is free if my time is worth nothing. After gnashing my teeth, I decided that since I actually have a job, I should stop being a cheapass and just plunk down a few bucks for some proper logging software. Best decision yet.

The venerable N1MM Logger+ appears to be free-as-in-beer, but it’s heavily geared toward contesting, with lots of features like callsign lookups and DX spotting. It’s a high-powered piece of work, and will take a bit to get into. I’ll probably mothball it until I need what it’s got.

With ARRL Field Day 2020 coming up in just 6 days, I grabbed a copy of the N3FJP Field Day Log and configured it for my radios. This is the logger my radio club uses for Field Day, but since we’re not having a community event due to COVID19, we need to keep our own logs at our own stations; after several Field Days, I’m most familiar with this logger.

The upshot is that N3FJP has a nifty backend ecosystem that works with all his loggers, so if I configure a station, a logbook, and radio setup for one logger, they’ll work with everything he publishes. So in that light, I grabbed his Amateur Contact Log. It has its own raft of useful capabilities, like interfacing with up to two radios for automatically fetching frequency and mode info, QRZ XML lookups, DX spotting, voice recording and playback, and it automatically detects if you’ve installed the ARRL Logbook of the World software and lets you download your logbook, then sign and upload new QSOs to LotW. And because I’m decidedly not a cheapass anymore, I actually paid for the full software license for all of his stuff; $50, lifetime, with all loggers and updates.

Just to kick the tires, I set up on 10 meters this afternoon and scanned until I heard someone calling CQ. I got a guy in Kansas, which is a long way on this band (summertime openings are alright!); a new state for my logs. Not content with that, I called CQ and got a guy in South Dakota, another new state for my logs. And later I got a guy in Odessa TX on 17 meters, which means there was significant E-skip propagation this afternoon (18.14MHz is definitely above FoF2). I heard him talking with someone in California, so his beam antenna was pointed in the other direction. When he called QRZ for further contacts, I called out and he heard me, even though I was behind him. He chatted with me as he turned his beam and I heard his signal quality going from 4-6 to 5-9. Significant E-skip. After our call, he later went on to contact someone in Arkansas, proving the hypothesis.

Some radio bands really are magical.

So, assuming they all upload to LotW and our records match and we get QSLs, that’ll be three more in the logs. Y’know, I think I’ll try for the Worked All States certificate (Alaska and Hawaii will be tough).

I know these are penny-ante numbers, but we all start somewhere. I need to get better with making contacts, get over my stupid mic shyness. Contesting might be a solution; just do it and get it done. Getting a functional logging solution seems to be the catalyst.

For once, I don’t actually have to make it a struggle to get uphill; just fucking pay for it, install it, set it up, and go. My life is too short to suffer my own reservations.

Unexpected Ethernet QRM

I made a quick-and-dirty directional Yagi antenna out of PVC pipe and measuring tape for some future Radio Direction Finding (“fox hunt”) fun. (Instructions here)

2-meter tape-measure Yagi antenna

Since I spent an evening sticking it all together, I had to test it out. So I connected it to a 2-meter (144MHz) radio, tuned it to an unused frequency, opened the squelch so I could hear the noise, and waved it around my apartment, watching the signal meter go up and down.

What I found was kinda surprising. Apparently I have a hot zone of radio frequency noise in a corner of my living room, right where the cable modem, router, and Gigabit Ethernet switch sit on a shelf. It’s typically not a problem when I’m working nearby repeaters and stations on FM (which is largely immune to this sort of noise), but if I’m doing SSB weak-signal or am using a handie-talkie at my desk, then it’s definitely going to be a problem.

So I asked the Internet what frequency the 1GB Ethernet standard (802.3ab 1000base-T) operates at. Turns out the signalling frequency is 125MHz, really damn close to the 144MHz passband of my radio’s receive filter. Thankfully, the voltage and current levels that exist in the cable and termination circuitry are relatively low, and are mitigated by the hashing effects of 4 differential twisted pairs of copper wire inside the cable keeping their electromagnetic impacts contained. But if I’m pointing a highly-directional antenna at a device that has an Ethernet port, I’m gonna hear something.

At this point, I’m not sure if wrapping every cable in a clamp-on ferrite or putting the entire networking stack inside a metal box will fix anything. But it’s something to consider if I intend to do weak-signal work with an omnidirectional antenna near that corner of the room (both of my 2m/70cm and 1.25m omni groundplane antennas outside are up on a pole 10 feet away through a wall).

If you look hard enough, you really can find QRM in surprising places.

Tunnels

In high school — a much gentler time — in the sighing hour after school let out, when I was supposed to be walking home to my nervous mother, I would sometimes dawdle around campus, haunting the hallways without need of a hall pass, breathing in the open-air spaces between buildings, poking at the toys in the physics lab, before eventually shrugging my backpack homeward to my wrong side of the tracks.

Prized among my amateur urban explorations was a 7′ × 7′ drainage tunnel that ran from the opposite side of the street to partially under the school. It was fed by a neighborhood creek, so it always had a trickle of water and storm debris. But as it made its way under the street, under the lawn, and under the school’s new addition, it terminated at a concrete shelf of 3′ high and 5′ deep, with two small pipes underneath that drained downhill toward the creek behind the school. In the wall over the shelf, two culvert pipes opened to a grassy spot sunk between buildings, and above was a steel grate where you could look up to see people walking overhead. The best way into the tunnel was to step down to the grassy washout and steal into the culverts when nobody was around to ask questions.

It was there that I felt something new. I felt like I was simultaneously committing a trespass and getting away with something wrong, and yet was expanding my knowledge of the world and claiming the space as mine. And during those moments of probing around in the dim light thinking bright thoughts, it was mine. It was my secret space, my place to hide, where I could just exist without pressure.

Those places are magical, especially when you’re a kid.

I don’t know where the guilt of being in those spaces comes from. Once, I spent so long on the dawdle that the sun was fading by the time I got home, and my mother grilled me about where I was. Of course I didn’t spill the beans, but that’s not where the guilt comes from. I think it’s the guilt of doing something unexpected, something sneaky, something outside the definition of normal; going off-map to see where this leads, or what’s under there, or what’s behind that door. It’s the guilt of standing up in defiant ingress and staking a claim, even if it wasn’t mine to stake.

Sure, it was potentially dangerous. Could’ve been all manner of beasts intent to do me harm. Could’ve been neighborhood kids tagging, or smoking, or likewise staking claims of their own with a mind to defend it. Or I could’ve been spotted by school administrators and given a stern reprimand with punishments on the school and the home fronts.

But that’s the thrill, isn’t it?

So, I think, in my heart of hearts, I’m an explorer, an investigator, a wanderer. I get bored easily, and get off on finding the secret passages behind the world; get off on slipping into the engineered and ignored spaces that make our world work so I can learn, so I can take notes, so I can slip those notes into my pocket as a safety. I like learning how things work, how systems interplay. I get bored with surfaces; I like structures.

It’s outside the norm, but that’s where people like me thrive. We take the random direction and see what’s there. By going into unknown places, we find the new food, the new materials, the new techniques. And by carefully sharing our findings, we elevate the norm. That’s how a species survives.

The last time I saw that building, the culverts had been covered with locked gates. Some other explorer was unwise in sharing their findings…or got caught. Or some administrator playing a game of What-If asked the right question and got the gates installed. The norm can stake its claim too.

But, still, explorers press outward into the ghostly forest beyond the ever-brightening campfire light. That’s where the magic is.

Hopefully, that’s where you’ll find me.