Learning CW

So, now that the exams are done, CQ Contest is done, so what’s next? I recently bought a set of Bencher paddles, so i guess now i have to start to learn morse.

What and Why morse?
Morse is a communication language that is much spoken about lately. It’s not a requirement anymore for your HAM Radio Amateur license and many novice amateurs look at it as a old-fashioned way of communicating. Why use Morse if there is Phone? Well, why use the radio at all if there is Internet?

From what i read CW (Continuous Wave, a, in HAM Radio world common used synonym for morse) is much more efficient that SSB for its low bandwidth requirements. Therefor it’s much more probable that you can “read” a CW signal over a long distance than an SSB signal.
This is the reason why modern radios have a much more restrictive filter set for CW than for SSB. If an SSB filter gives you 1.8kHz bandwidth as a minimum (below that it gets very difficult to read the signal), in CW filters can go down to 500Hz or even lower and signals are still perfectly readable.
Try it! Look up a CW signal and close your filters. You would be amazed how much noise you can eliminate and focus in on only the signal that you want to hear.
Now, CW is also the only “digital” mode you can use with just your ears and brain as decoding devices. No PC needed.

And you know, it’s fun to learn something new. If you’ve made so many contacts already, it’s time to move out of your comfort zone, isn’t it?

Learning morse
Apparently there are two generally accepted ways of learning Morse.
The first one is the Farnsworth Method. W6TTB Russ Farnsworth teaches the morse code at full speed (20 wpm) but with long pauses between the letters to give the operator time to think about what he heard. Once the operator is comfortable with the code, the pauses between the letters get reduced.
The second method is Koch’s method. I get the impression that this is the most commonly accepted way of learning. Ludwig Koch (psychologist and as far as i know no radio amateur) teaches the code also at target speed, but one letter at a time. Once you get 90% of the decoding right, another letter gets added.
Inside the Koch method there are people that prefer to learn the code in alphabetic order or in order of complexity of the code, starting with e, i, m and t and sub-sequentially adding letters like a, n, etc.
I’m not sure yet which method to use. I guess the Koch method is a good starting point.

Getting on the air
Nobody wants to look foolish. And neither do i. So when are you good enough to get on the air and make your first QSO? K4OSO Milt wrote this article about it. It’s called “8 good reasons for NOT getting on the air”.

“8 GOOD REASONS FOR NOT GETTING ON THE AIR”

By Milt, K4OSO 

1. I CAN’T COPY VERY WELL Copy skills get better with time and practice. Nerves is certainly a factor at first. The answer to nerves is exposure. Get on the air and practice those skills. After all, you’re not copying vectors for a brain exploration surgery, just fun stuff. What if you do miss some? Eh? 

2. I MAKE MISTAKES IN SENDING Who cares? Everyone does! If you show me an op who sends flawless CW, I’ll eat my hat. Even keyboarders make mistakes. Its what you do when you make one that is the measure of an op. A good op corrects his mistakes. When you glide past mistakes it leaves the other guy guessing. 

3. MY CW IS VERY SLOW Accuracy transcends speed! Accuracy is absolute, while speed will increase/improve over time. What you DON’T want is to get faster at sending poorly. Fast and poor are an awful twosome. Practice sending well, at a speed which is comfortable for you. You WILL make mistakes, just correct them and move on. 

4. I GET LOST IN QSO’S As many have suggested, by writing down the parts of a typical exchange/qso, you will be better able to get through a qso. Its really funny how few comments are directed to spelling. Spelling slows us down and trips us up in many qso situations. When you practice off-air, its fine to use a sheet of text, but I find that sending as if in a qso is much more helpful. Practice this by sending out of your head. You’ll get used to sending off the cuff and your spelling will improve tremendously. 

If ragchewing is your goal, keep your exchanges short, at first. Don’t try to say too much in one exchange. That way, it will give you time to think about what you’ll say next, and will slow the other op down as well. That will make his transmissions easier to copy. Keep it casual, and don’t let it become hard work. 

5. MY PALMS SWEAT Keep a hand towel at your operating desk. My palms sweated on my first date too but, it didn’t stop me. Remember, no one can see you! Try PRETENDING you’re as calm as a cucumber. Think of yourself as a “take charge” op who can handle any situation. As an op thinkest, so shall he be on the air. 

One particular activity that improved my confidence and ability to handle most situations was learning traffic handling on the Maryland Slow Net. Net speed was maximum 10 wpm (and flexible), the instructors were patient and considerate. That training gave me the confidence I desperately needed. I’m now an Instructor and Net Control Station on that Net and watch the transformation of new ops from tentative and unsure to ops who would be welcomed on NTS traffic net throughout the country. Its easy and painless and proceeds at the new op’s own pace. Even if you don’t become an active traffic handler, the training is invaluable for learning general operating practices. 

6. PEOPLE WILL THINK POORLY OF ME Bull Crap!!! Everyone expects new / inexperienced CW ops to be somewhat tentative, make some mistakes and miss some copy. They expect it because THEY PERFORMED THE SAME WAY WHEN THEY WERE NEW / INEXPERIENCED. Some well-meaning ops, in an attempt to sooth the nervous new op will say, “Aw, no one will notice your mistakes” Bull crap! Of course they notice them! They’d have to be idiots not to. BUT, no one cares about a your mistakes. This is a hobby, a means of having fun. It WILL be fun if you stop agonizing over it. The amount of fun you have at CW is inversely proportional to the amount you worry about it. 

7. I’LL DO IT WHEN I GET BETTER That’s fine if you like spending your time procrastinating. “He was gonna get on the air tomorrow” would make a unfortunate epitath. “He really enjoyed his ham radio hobby and his CW” is a much nicer one. I waited until I was over 60 to finally get started in Ham radio. I often think of how much fun I could have had over the years if I had just bitten the bullet and jumped in. Now, I’m trying to make up for lost time. But, we all know that’s impossible. 

8. I HAVE PROBLEMS WITH THIS OR THAT TYPE OF KEY Ok… use whatever you’re good with, and develop your skills on the others at your own pace. Whatever you do, don’t try to swage your fist into a type of key that frustrates you. Learning new skills, while not easy, should be fun. Measure your progress in small chunks. Don’t set your goals too far ahead. You must be able to see progress. If speed improvement is your goal, measure it one word per minute at a time. Don’t try to go from 5 wpm to 10 wpm. That’s doubling your speed! It would be like me trying to go from 35 wpm to 70 wpm. Never happen, go from 5 to 6. Then to 7, and so on. 

73, Milt 





CQ DX SSB Contest

1st Day

My first day on my first contest, the CQ DX SSB Contest 2011, was not an easy one.
I started off checking which band was the best to start with. Since it was early in the morning (around 08:30 here, yes that’s early for a saturday morning, i wanted to start on 20m. So i checked the cluster and found out that it didn’t really matter where you start. All three bands (10, 15 and 20m) were open.
Since i almost never work on 15m i started to make contacts there.

A couple of things i learned today:

  • If there is a contest and you have a very limited setup like i have (no big beams, no amplifiers, etc), DON’T FOLLOW THE CLUSTER. Every single contact is a pile-up! As soon as i realized that i just started walking the dial of the radio. Across the whole band, up and down and try to work everything i hear. And i made the nicest contacts (P33P is an example, porr guy was all alone) like that. 
  • Use logging software. I used to use Ham Radio DeLuxe, but recently i moved over to the DXLab Suite (www.dxlabsuite.com). We the contest didn’t work with progressive numbers i didn’t run it in contest mode, but it’s soooo convenient to know where you are on the band, where the pile-ups are (so you can avoid them), additional info for a station, etc, etc.
  • If you use QRZ.COM for automatic lookups, get a payed account. Halfway through the day i ran into the 150 lookups/24 hours limit if the free account.
  • Take it easy. Don’t keep shouting for the same contact just because it’s a DXCC you didn’t work yet. Remember that the contest is about who makes the most contacts. Move on and pick the low hanging fruits first. Come back after an hour or so. For sure he already worked a lot of stations and you get your chance.
Don’t be just another one of the crowd!

The people who read my blog know that i normally don’t make a lot of contacts. For me HAM Radio is much more than making contacts. All in all i made 82 contacts today. With this i will not win the contest, but i had good fun. most of all because i got the feeling that i was doing something different than 80% of the stations participating in the contest.

I actually enjoy making contacts with the limited conditions i have. I’m sure that for me making QSO’s with OJ0X, OH0X or JA1YPA is a lot more exciting than for the many operators with long beams and huge amplifiers.

2nd Day

Today was a quiet day regarding the Contest. In the morning i had some personal stuff to do. No time for radio. I only got at the radio at around 16:00. Still i managed to make 30 contacts. Mostly 10 and 15m.
I know i will not win this contest, but i managed to get quite a few new DXCC so it was a good weekend for me.

Just a quick laugh at ourselves

Internet and HAM Radio

Internet seems to become more and more indispensable in the world of HAM Radio. Why, what and how?

Internet is a huge source of information right at your fingertips for anyone who knows where to go and how to use a search engine. Personally I’m a classical Internet user and I use Internet to collect information about topic I am interested in.
If I want to know about a certain type of radio I scan the users group for that radio or I check out YouTube for reviews for that radio. I am an active member of the Kenwood TS-480 mailing list on Yahoo. If I want to buy something, I check out eBay for prices, eHAM reviews to check out if im buying the right thing, vendor websites for manuals and webshops to find the right price for the article I want to buy. If i want to know where to send my QSL after i made contact, i can look that up in a callsign database. Do i need to go on?
But there is more you can do with Internet to make your HAM Radio hobby even more interesting as it already is.

DX Cluster

One of the most used functions HAM operators use not he Internet are the DX Clusters. A DX Cluster is a group of servers all over the world running a piece of software that allow operators to send Spots. These spots are replicated to all servers in the cluster, so if one operator sends a spot to one server, another operator can see that spot on the server he is connected to and then knows where, on what frequency, a station is active.

Now, clusters are a good and a bad thing. They are a good thing because operators are informed where the action is, so they don’t have to scan the band to find the next DX.
But for exactly the same reason clusters are a bad thing. Thousands of operators are following the cluster and if an interesting DX is published on the cluster, many of those thousands of operators immediately start calling to that DX. The result is a huge pile-up for any interesting station that is  published on the cluster.

If I look at myself, I am running with less than optimal station conditions. When an interesting DX is published on the cluster, many times for me the fun is over. It is almost impossible for me to work that station if thousands of stronger stations are calling. Therefor I have and am still developing strategies to hear and possibly work the DX before he is published on the cluster.

HAM Radio online

There are many radio operators who are willing to connect their radios to the Internet and make those radios available for other operators to listen what is happening on the air and sometimes even let them be used to make contacts.
What these operators have done is to publish their CAT control on the Internet (most of the times using the web) and stream the audio from the radio to the Internet. Like this they enable other operators to use a radio that might me geographically located thousands of miles away.

A good example of online transceivers is the website GlobalTuners.com

HAMSphere
HAMSphere is merely a HAM Radio simulation where you are connecting to a server that simulates real conditions. You are not really on the air like when operators hook up physical receivers to the Internet.
The reality of the simulation is fabulous and because you are not operating a real radio you don’t need an HAM Radio amateur license tu use it. Everything is there, people make contacts, conditions are varying day by day simulating propagation, people exchange QSL’s, etc. All just like in real HAM Radio.
I am a member of HAMSphere (although I don’t use it that much anymore lately) and I think it’s a great way of getting to know HAM Radio without having the need to build a station, get a license, etc.



EchoLink

EchoLink is a service where radio operators, mostly 2m operators, broadcast the audio of their radios on the Internet thus enhancing the reach of their radios. EchoLink can be used without owning a radio at all. You just install the software, connect to an existing radio and start talking.

I don’t like EchoLink. I see it as a bad quality MSN Messenger. But that’s probably because I don’t understand the purpose of EchoLink (yet).

Propagation Prediction
To be able to make contacts all depends on if there is propagation or not. Therefor there are plenty of websites that talk about propagation and show those typical propagation numbers. I don’t really know what those numbers mean, but if you want to know more about this (i don’t, really), you can read about it on Wikipedia or do a search on Google.

If you are like me and you don’t understand the numbers on the right here, you can go to a wonderful website called RigReference.
Not only does this website present you the technical specs and user reviews of all the rig you can think of, but also they publish nice propagation gadgets which translate these cryptic Solar-Terrestrial Data into something understandable you can even use on your own website or blog.

Now, for me, the ultimate in Propagation Prediction is the VOACAP (Voice of America Coverage Analysis Program).
Not only does this software create nice graphs of what the usable frequencies are in which part of the world and on what time of the day, but they also run an HP Prediction tool where you enter your station details, the receiver station details and the year and month you want to make the contact and VOACAP will calculate which are the best hours to try and which are the best frequencies to use.
For 11 meters it will calculate which areas of the world are best to work at what time of the day depending on the transmitter and receiver station configurations.

Example VOACAP output for 11 meter

As you can see, there are a lot of areas of HAM Radio where the Internet can help you finding what you need. However, all these tools don’t help you if you don’t know how to use your radio.
About how to tune your antennas, how to tune your audio, how to make a QSO efficiently and with respect for your fellow station calling, all those topics will be covered in future articles.

Again, if you have any comments, if you feel i missed something, if i got something wrong, please leave a message. I love feedback, good or (constructive) bad.