A Year in the Hobby

Ham radio really is a hobby made up of hobbies. It’s an onion and the more one peels, the more there is to peel. And there is no shortage of areas to explore. I got my license just about a year ago – I took my Technician exam on my dad’s birthday – and an upgrade to General followed about a month later. So what have I poked at this year? A lot. Let’s take a look.

Maybe the best part of getting into this hobby was getting back to making things. It’s been too long since I broke out the soldering iron and went to town on making something that did something new as opposed to hacking on something that needed a repair. I went through a couple of kits. I built a dummy load which has been used many times over. I put together 20m and 40m kit radios. Or mostly anyway. And I put up my very own 20m dipole antenna in the attic. That wasn’t exactly a moonshot, but it was a step toward showing me just how homebrew things can get with this hobby.

Wiring the house has been fun as well. And by fun I mean fun explaining to my wife why these cables have to run across the bedroom floor. I haven’t gotten the shack to the basement yet, so my radio lives on my nightstand. It’s not a great solution, but it’s what I’ve got. Ham radio is about compromise. I’m compromising until I can get the wire to my office in the basement. It’ll get there! Maybe this winter!

And then there’s DMR. I had no idea that existed in the realm of the amateur world the way that it does. I had great success with the Zumspot and an inexpensive MD-380. Programming it wasn’t as daunting as was advertised and I’ve had contacts all over the place with that thing. The Zumspot also opened me up to D-STAR and I participate on nets there regularly now.

Nets! What do you do with a ham radio? You talk to people. And the best place for that is on the regular series of nets that are out there. I have a 2m net that I do over RF, a net that I join over EchoLink weekly, and a D-STAR net. For those keeping track, that’s three different vectors of communication I’ve collected in one year. It’s still amazing to see just how many ways there are to join in. All I need now is an HF net that I can hit regularly and a DMR net that doesn’t start at 11 PM my time.

There are also a ton of pieces of software that feed into this hobby. I’ve learned to use all kinds of fun stuff from CHIRP (which I got to run on a Mac, thankyouverymuch!) to FLDIGI which I have running on a Windows NetBook. I also got to spend a lot of time with the RaspberryPi as I monkeyed around with add-ons for the Pi-Star system on my Zumspot and GNURadio on my desktop-ish Pi. Yes, I’m playing with computers again. And it hasn’t really been nearly as bad as I expected. Aside from my time with virtual machines and trying to resolve every device driver issue that one could encounter with something as simple as a UNIVERSAL Serial Bus. I swear, back when USB was introduced I lauged at the Universal part. I’m still laughing…through my tears.

Taking my rig on vacation was good for an afternoon or two of distraction. I got some 20m contacts up in the hills and it was good to say that I’d done some HF operating. I was hoping to get a little more of that, but I’ve been busy and haven’t resolved my 40m attic antenna just yet. Or the 6m. Or the 10m. I have antenna issues. And those aren’t going away, I don’t think. But taking the rig on vacation let me test out my portable antenna and see that it works pretty well for what it is. I’m still looking at other ways to do that and need to put together a batter box and a Jeep mount and… Yeah. That list keeps growing.

So what’s on tap for the next year? I want to join a local club so that I can get more involved. I’d like to help out with event communication. I want to see how I can further my volunteering with radio. I’ve attended and ARES/RACES meeting and submitted my application. That’s a start. A small one, but a start nonetheless. I really want to go to Field Day next year. Maybe I’ll go to Ohio and do that with my dad. But I will, in any case, be outside and on the air for that one. I’m putting it on the calendar now.

I’m also going to figure out the low power digital modes so that I can have a little more fun. I think I can use my silly NetBook for some of that and once I figure out what I’m doing with the software, I’ll be out and on the air with that too.

Mostly, I hope to keep using this hobby as a way to unplug from the daily stress and push my mind to be creative in a different realm. It’s a way to sharpen skills, meet new people, and relax.

Good Times with HF

This is the story of a novice, rather than that of an amateur.

I think I mentioned at one point that I had a dipole in the attic that runs both 20m and 40m with coils. I’ve been listening in and a little shy with the mic. The few times that I did reach out, I was either not getting heard or there was a pileup and I was losing out.

Or so I thought.

I’ve recently gotten my hands on a portable antenna for use on HF and I wanted to get an analog SWR meter to have on hand in case I wanted to use it with one of the kits that is still sitting on my workbench in some degree of assembly. I plugged that in to the 7100 just to see how I was doing and WOW! That was enlightening.

It turns out that the manual for the 7100 and its built-in SWR meter were things that didn’t click for me. I clearly didn’t know how to read the manual and as a result, the meter wasn’t telling me what I needed to see. And what I needed to see was: THE ANTENNA WASN’T WORKING.

So I went up to the attic. I put my dummy load everywhere that I could and finally got to the point where I couldn’t find fault. It was time for a screwdriver.

I opened up the T-bracket that holds the antenna connector to see if I could just steal the T and use it for a home-brew with some 14 gauge wire I had lying around. Ya know what? If the antenna isn’t connected to the connector that goes to the coax, well, your SWR is going to be pretty bad.

I won’t lie. There were some foul words that flew out of my mouth whilst in the attic that evening. I took the antenna down. I removed the T casing. I got a stretch of wire and measured it to make a 20m antenna. I fired up the soldering iron and wired it up to a coax connector.

Note: My dad (AC8NT) is right. I need a 100W iron for those connectors. It’s on the list.

Note 2: It’s much easier to say that my dad is right now that I have kids of my own. I’m sure that’s unrelated.

I hung my home-brew antenna in the attic with some staples. Look, my wife hates the wire in the attic enough as is. It needs to be out of the way. Amateur radio is all about compromise from top to bottom.

I measured the SWR the right way with the 7100 and my analog meter.

I cut the wire.

I measured again.

I cut some more.

I measured again.

Whoa. I mean… Wow. 1.1 at the middle of the band. That seems like just what the doctor ordered!

Because life is life, the 20m band is only good during the day, and I work, I didn’t get much of a chance to try talking on the radio for a while. But last night, I fired it up and there seemed to be a lot of people calling CQ. The bands were good and I had some time. I managed to have a QSO with a gentleman from Vermont. I was coming in 5×9 and life was good! That was my first HF contact and it was exciting.

This of course gives rise to other projects. I need to get the 40m coil antenna fixed and figured out. I think I want to make either a fan dipole if I can swing it to get 10m or 6m or just hang another chunk of wire. All of this means I probably need the coax relay project from the Ham Radio Workbench guys. This truly is a hobby made up of hobbies.

I have to say, it’s not like I’m reinventing any wheels. I’m simply making my own for the first time. Maybe that’s what this hobby does best: it gives us the opportunity to play. To try, fail, try again, and succeed. That’s what teaches us to learn and to be open to the world around us. We need that.

Tools for Learning “The Code”

This weekend, a couple of things came across my feed that were pretty cool when it comes to learning Morse Code. I will readily admit that I’ve been slacking on that because life is busy and I wasn’t able to plug in for 15 minutes a day while my mind was fresh. It’s an excuse, yes, but one that is at least plausible given the number of life forms in my house that require tending. A couple of things popped up this weekend that got me moving again.

GBoard. This is yet another third party keyboard for iOS and Android. I have been using one that is no longer being maintained and I love the swiping around to type functionality so this makes a good drop in replacement. BUT! It also has a Morse Code keyboard complete with predictive text.

Why would I ever use that? Well, Google has a pretty cool page with some very interesting use cases if that’s your thing. And it is MY thing, so there ya go.

Google also created a Morse Code Trainer page that teaches The Code in a very efficient manner. What it does lack is random strings and Ham-specific things like Q codes and call signs for practice. I can easily forgive that because it had my send stats soaring after playing with it for under an hour. And it hooked my daughter. She just wants to play Morse Code all the time now. She thinks it’s a game and I’m not going to try to convince her otherwise.

So there are a couple of things from Google for your smartphone or tablet that can help with learning The Code.

DMR

When I started listening to the Ham Radio Workbench podcast they were on quite a tear about DMR. I wasn’t really sure what it was, but as I listened, I got more and more into it. I have an ICOM 7100 that has D-Star but I’d not even played with that at all. The idea got stuck in my head that I should check it out and when they said that it was the most radio fun you can have for under $200, they had my undivided attention.

And that claim is pretty close to true.

Where to begin? Well, the odds were good that there would be a DMR repeater somewhere in the area and I was right. A quick stroll through the repeater book got me where I needed to go, so all I needed was a radio. Like most people, I have constraints and one of them is money. I decided to go all in on the cheapest radio I could buy that someone had said anything positive about and that was the TYT MD-380 that can easily be obtained from Amazon. At $99 for the radio and USB cable, it was quite a bargain. And if it turned out that I didn’t have fun with it or that I couldn’t get it running, I wasn’t out much if it went to sit in The Drawer Of Forgotten Projects. And if I really got into this whole DMR thing, well, upgrades are part of the fun, right?

I recommend that before you buy your radio, you go get a DMR ID. There is one required to configure your radio and uniquely identify it to the world. It’s a simple process and you can step through it here: https://radioid.net. All you have to have is a Technician Class ticket. After running through the form it takes about 48 hours for the ID to hit your email. I had mine before my radio arrived.

The thing that I had heard quite a bit about was code plugs. Now back when commercial radios like these were first in use, the configurations were burned to PROMs and plugged into the radios. So the code was plugged. Got it. It was recommended in blogs and other forums that one find an Elmer with an existing file and set it up. Well, I like to start from scratch so I can learn a thing or two and that’s just what I did. For all the talk of difficulty, what it really is is tedious. Very tedious. But the software I was using made copying and pasting my way to success less of a burden than I had anticipated.

We’ll digress here for a moment so that I can share a bit about the MD-380. The software for programming it is ridiculously simple to run, but for a Mac or Linux user, it’s an uphill battle. Or it was until I installed VirtualBox and made a Windows 10 VM. I got lucky and while I found a number of nits to pick with VirtualBox, the software for programming the MD-380 worked out of the box. The VM found the hardware first time and I was able to pull over the blank configuration and follow some very simple steps to get myself up and running.

The steps that I followed for configuring the MD-380, if you’re interested, can be found on the adafruit.com site here https://cdn-learn.adafruit.com/downloads/pdf/tytera-md-380-dmr.pdf. These instructions are really easy to follow and I was able to step through those and get exactly where I needed to be the first time through.

After some reading on how the DMR repeaters work and given that I really wanted to get on the TalkGroup for the Ham Radio Workbench out in the Bay Area, it was pretty clear that I needed my own hotspot. This was mainly so that I wouldn’t be messing around with a local repeater and all that jazz just to listen to a limited interest group. And, of course, I wanted to noodle with some D-Star stuff as well, so it seemed logical to grab one as they aren’t cost prohibitive. As for hotspots, there are a few out there and their manufacte seems to ebb and flow. I picked the Zumspot which right now (June of 2018) can only be acquired via Ham Radio Outlet. It’s a hat for a Raspberry Pi and there’s an inexpensive kit that contains a Raspberry Pi Zero along with the Zumspot hat. I also liked that it has an enclosure that you can either buy or 3D print yourself. Really all you need is the kit and a micro USB for power and it’s ready to go.

Full disclosure: I’ve been a software developer for about 25 years. That makes my dad really old. But it also skews my idea of “user friendly” more than a little. I’m also an old school GNU/Linux guy (Debian only, please) and I contributed device drivers for sound cards for a long time. This is a long way of saying that nothing has ever Just Worked(tm) for me EVER. And yet, I’m here to say that I followed these instructions verbatim http://papasys.com/dmr/resources/DATA/docs/ZumSpot_Pistar_KC6N_20180120.pdf and it worked THE. FIRST. TIME.

Yes. The first time.

I configured the hotspot, programmed the talk group and channel data into my radio, and got a QSO across the talk group with a lovely gentleman in England. I was so shocked and completely unprepared for it to work that I didn’t log his callsign. That’s my loss, I suppose. But there you have it. DMR out of the box and ready to go.

So now what? Now, I poke around and find talk groups to join. There’s a list of BrandMeister groups here courtesy of MW0MWZ. I’m also hoping to make some new friends who keep their radios on while they putter around the shack. Like all things Ham Radio, it’s another thing to tweak and poke at and explore while I’m waiting for the HF bands to open up a bit and for my CW chops to get where they need to be.

The moral of the story is that it really is that easy to get up and running on DMR for just about $200. And my total time sunk into the project was under 4 hours including time spent setting up the VM and all the other nonsense because I live in a Mac/Linux world at home.

Hamvention

Well, this is better late than never, I guess. Back when I got my ticket, I decided that I’d take a trip to Hamvention out in Dayton (sorry, Xenia). Being an Ohio native with a dad who is into this stuff, I was well aware of the magnitude of the event and how big the show is, but I’d never been. It seemed like it might be fun to go out that way and take my son with me for a bit of a nerd weekend. I knew my dad would be going and I figured the three of us could hang out and have fun.

As it turned out, there was a really great reason to go. See, my dad is retired and as all good retired engineers do, he found something to fill up his calendar. He picked getting involved with the Portage County Amateur Radio Service aka PCARS. Now, he couldn’t just get a little involved, he had to go and get elected president this last year. So when I got my ticket, I joined the club. I regularly attend their 2m Net via EchoLink, so it made sense.

This year, PCARS won the distinguished Hamvention Club of the Year. So the old man got to go to a banquet and, oddly enough, my stepmother decided not to attend. I have no idea why! The upside for my son and me was that we got to crash his hotel room for the night.

My son and I always have a good time traveling together and this was no exception. Stops at Sheetz for breakfast sandwiches and just general hanging out. I don’t know that Hamvention was his idea of fun, but he got to see the satellite programs and talk with the BSA guys about what cool perks a scout has with a ticket. Of course it rained because, well, Hamvention and Ohio in spring. I will say that he loved our quick outing to Young’s Dairy for ice cream.

It was a great trip. The boy and I got to hang out with my dad and we had a good time looking at both things and stuff. I didn’t buy anything, but I did meet George from the Ham Radio Workbench podcast which is a favorite of mine and now my son’s as well.

Good times!

20m QRP Labs CW Transceiver Build

No matter what else you learn to do, if you’re going to mess around with building kits, learn to unsolder components. You’re gonna read that resistor code wrong eventually.

It uh…happened to a friend of mine this weekend.

Code Trainer

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, my dad gave me a great gift. He handed me the KD1JV Code Trainer from QRPGuys. I was able to solder it up in about 30 minutes and most of that time was spent finding a capacitor that found its way into the minijack. With that mystery solved, my favorite little girl provided her expert guidance and supervision over the construction. Her efforts were not wasted as it worked the first time!

Dad also gave me a J key mounted to one serious piece of metal. It’s good stuff and hopefully I will get some practice in here and there. There are apps for my mobile OS of choice, but the key is a lot more fun.

QRPGuys.com KD1JV Code Trainer
QRPGuys.com KD1JV Code Trainer

General License Achieved

I took and passed the General License test on 16-Nov-2017 at the Community Ambulance Association of Ambler. So now I can get my 20m stuff going!

Still trying to find minutes to put together my BITX40 radio. I’ve got a pretty cool case that I found via a blog here.

I should note that for my birthday I got a good UHF/VHF antenna for the attic to push along my joining of nets from the house.

With the General test complete, I’m off to work on learning Morse Code. The goal here is DX CW.