Podcasts by VK6FLAB

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Starting in the wonderful hobby of Amateur or HAM Radio can be daunting and challenging but can be very rewarding. Every week I look at a different aspect of the hobby, how you might fit in and get the very best from the 1000 hobbies that Amateur Radio represents. Note that this podcast started in 2011 as "What use is an F-call?".
Updated: 1 hour 1 min ago

Identity in Amateur Radio

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Foundations of Amateur Radio

The recent "incident" at the ARRL in which it disclosed that it was the "victim of a sophisticated network attack by a malicious international cyber group" brings into focus some serious questions around our community in relation to identity and privacy.

Let's start with your callsign. Right now in Australia you can use the official register to look for VK6FLAB. When you do, you'll discover that it's "Assigned to Foundation". That's it. No mention of who holds it, where it's registered or how to contact the holder, none of that.

In the case of my callsign, because I haven't surrendered my apparently now legally useless license, you can still search the previous system, the Register of Radiocommunications Licenses and discover that it's held by me, but as soon as it expires, that record will vanish and the relationship between me and my callsign will be lost to the public.

Also, there are no dates associated with any of this. You cannot use the current or previous system to discover if I held my callsign in November 2010 or not. In case you're wondering, no, I didn't, I was licensed a month later. Right now if you look for VK6EEN on QRZ.com, you'll see that it's linked to CT1EEN, but when was that information last updated? I know for a fact that I became the holder in November 2020. It appears that Sam CT1EEN used it around the turn of the century, about 24 years ago, but precisely when and for how long, is unclear.

So, from a public disclosure perspective, the links between me and my callsigns are tenuous at best.

Before I continue, I will point out that this is not unusual. For example, you can see the number plate on my car as I drive down the street, but most people don't have the ability to link it to me.

Similarly, Ofcom in the United Kingdom released a list of allocated amateur callsigns after a freedom of information request. It's unclear if this information is updated, or if it requires a new request each time. Like Australia, the dataset contains the callsign, the type of license and when the record was last updated. Nothing else.

In contrast, the United States has a full license search that returns name, address, issue and expiry dates. Japan offers both a search tool and downloads. Interestingly you can see if a callsign was previously licensed and when, but not by whom.

No doubt each country has their own interpretation in relation to how this is handled and as was the case in Australia, this is ever changing.

This leaves us with an interesting phenomenon.

We use callsigns on-air to identify ourselves, but the relationship between the callsign and our identity, let alone when, is not guaranteed for a significant proportion of the amateur community.

So, how does this relate to the ARRL incident?

Radio amateurs like to make contacts with each other and collect those contacts like you might collect stickers or postage stamps. For decades we've used QSL cards, essentially a postcard sent from one amateur to another to confirm a contact. When you collect enough cards, you can apply for an award, like the DXCC, showing that you made contact with one hundred different so-called DX entities.

In the era of computing, some organisations, like the ARRL, came up with the idea of using the internet to exchange these contacts instead of using a postcard. This reduced delays and was presented as a system to make the process more secure by requiring that people electronically sign their contacts, but could only do so after identifying themselves using traditional means, like providing copies of their license, their passport, etc. The ARRL called it Logbook of the World, or LoTW, and it was adopted by the amateur community around the globe.

While the ARRL continues to state that it only holds public information on its member database, it has made no such assurances about the LoTW system. There is personal and private information that the ARRL has and there is no indication at all what happened to it.

Other systems such as QRZ, eQSL, Clublog and Hamlog offer similar systems with various levels of authentication and verification. A new player, HQSL, is confusing the issue by offering cryptographically signed QSL cards, boasting that their system is decentralised and not restricted to any single service, but immediately requires that you sign-up with Hamlog to get going.

So, we have several organisations offering electronic logging, contact confirmation and security which claim to guarantee that this callsign contacted that callsign at a time and date, on a band, using a mode.

One problem.

None of this is real.

For starters, there is no guarantee that the station operating VK6FLAB was me. There is also no record guaranteeing that I'm the holder of VK6FLAB, or any proof that I am who I say I am. There is also no guarantee that the person confirming a contact between VK6FLAB and you is me. So, we're creating a phantom secure system that's attempting to fix the wrong problem.

In golf, when you start playing for rankings, rather than a round at the 19th hole, the process used to verify your score is dependent on peer review. You cannot mark your own score-card, someone else does.

In amateur radio we've built this electronic house of cards to track whom we've talked to and when, but it's a mirage when looked at closely.

While a DXCC award is worth nothing more than a personal achievement, we cannot go on pretending that identity verification services like LoTW are real, nor can we continue to accept that organisations like the ARRL should demand and store valuable identity information.

I'm Onno VK6FLAB

Long Wave Radio

Sat, 06/08/2024 - 12:00
Foundations of Amateur Radio

If you've heard the phrase "shortwave listeners", you might have wondered what on earth that was all about.

It relates to the length of a radio wave used to transmit information. The length of a radio wave is tied to its frequency. The longer the wave, the lower the frequency.

When radio amateurs talk about bands, like for example the 40m band, we're talking about a range of frequencies where the wavelength is around 40m. From a frequency perspective, this is around 7 MHz. The 160m band, at about 1.8 MHz, or 1,800 kHz is considered the beginning of the short wave bands.

This implies that there are longer waves as well. If you've ever seen or owned a mid 1980's transistor radio, you'll have seen the notation MW, which stands for Medium Wave, today it's called the AM band. Older radios might have the notation LW, or Long Wave.

The medium wave band is a broadcast radio band that runs between about 500 and 1,700 kHz. The wave length is between 600 m and 170 m.

When radio was still in its infancy, there was also a popular long wave band, with wavelengths between 800 m and 2,000 m, or 150 to 375 kHz.

Today much of that has gone by the wayside. With the advent of digital radio, in Australia it's called DAB+, Digital Audio Broadcasting, the whole idea of "wave" has pretty much vanished.

Some countries like Japan and the United States are in the process of discussing the phasing out of the AM broadcast band. Much of that appears to be driven by car manufacturers who claim that the AM band is no longer useful or used, but forget to tell anyone that they really want to stop having to put AM radios in their cars because it's difficult to isolate the electrical noise from their modern contraptions in order to make it possible to actually listen to that band.

If you ask me, it's a good incentive to make electronics RF quiet, something which is increasingly important in our wirelessly connected world.

This might lead you to believe that all activity on air is moving to higher and higher frequencies, but that's not the case. The properties that made long wave and medium wave radio possible in the early 1900's are still valid today. For example, there are WSPR or Weak Signal Propagation Reporter beacons on the 2200m band, or at 136 kHz.

Whilst your RTL-SDR dongle might not quite get down that low, most of them start at 500 kHz, you don't need to spend big to start playing. My Yeasu FT-857d is capable of tuning to 100 kHz, plenty of space to start listening to the 2200m band, even if I cannot physically, or legally, transmit there.

If you want to build your own receiver, you can check out the weaksignals.com website by Alberto I2PHD where you'll find a project to build a receiver capable of 8 kHz to 900 kHz using a $50 circuit board.

If that's not enough, there's radio experimentation happening at even lower frequencies. Dedicated to listening to anything below 22 kHz, including natural RF, with a wavelength greater than 13 km, Renato IK1QFK runs the website vlf.it where you'll find receivers and antennas to build.

Given that most sound cards operate up to around 192 kHz, you can start by connecting an antenna to the microphone port of your sound card and use it to receive VLF or Very Low Frequencies. On your Linux computer you can use "Quisk" to tune.

There are VLF transmitters on air. For example, SAQ, the Grimeton Radio Station in Sweden opened on the 1st of December 1924. Capable of 200 kW, today it uses about 80 kW and transmits twice a year on 17.2 kHz.

While we search for higher and higher frequencies, there is still plenty of fun to be had at the other end of the radio spectrum. Consider for example that VLF or Very Low Frequency radio waves, between 3 and 30 kHz can penetrate seawater.

I'll leave you to explore.

I'm Onno VK6FLAB

The ARRL incident of May 2024

Sat, 06/01/2024 - 12:00
Foundations of Amateur Radio

Today I want to talk about something that might feel only tangentially related to our hobby, but it likely affects you.

Recently the ARRL announced that it was "in the process of responding to a serious incident involving access to our network and headquarters-based systems". A day later it sought to assure the community that the "ARRL does not store credit card information" and they "do not collect social security numbers" and went on to say that their "member database only contains publicly available information". Five days after that it's "continuing to address a serious incident involving access to our network and systems" and that "Several services, such as Logbook of The World(R) and the ARRL Learning Center, are affected.", but "LoTW data is secure". Over a third of the latest announcement, more than a week ago, was to assure the community that the July QST magazine is on track but might be delayed for print subscribers.

Regardless of how this situation evolves, it's unwelcome news and much wider reaching than the ARRL.

LoTW, or Logbook of The World, is used globally by the amateur community to verify contacts between stations. The IARU, the International Amateur Radio Union, is headquartered at the ARRL office.

I've been told that I should have empathy and consider that the ARRL is only a small organisation that may not have the best of the best in technology staff due to budget constraints and finally, that LoTW being down for a few days is not going to kill anyone.

All those things might well be true and mistakes can and do happen.

The ARRL has been in existence for well over a century, bills itself as the answer to "When All Else Fails" and has even registered this as a trademark, but hasn't actually said anything useful about an incident that appears to have occurred on the 14th of May, now over two weeks ago. By the way, that date is based on the UptimeRobot service showing less than 100% up-time on that day, the ARRL hasn't told us when this all occurred, it didn't even acknowledge that anything was wrong until two days later.

This raises plenty of uncomfortable questions.

What information did you share with the ARRL when you activated your LoTW account? For me it was over a decade ago. I jumped through the hoops required and managed to create a certificate. What information I shared at the time I have no idea about. As I've said before, I do know that security was more extreme than required by my bank, even today, and the level of identification required was in my opinion disproportionate to the information being processed by the service, lists of amateur stations contacting each-other.

Something to take into account, on the 30th of October 2013, Norm W3IZ wrote in an email to me: "Data is never removed from LoTW." - I have no idea how much or which specific information that refers to.

If you used the ARRL Learning Center, what information did you share? If you're a member of the ARRL, or you purchased something from their online store, what data was required and stored? Is the data at the IARU affected? What infrastructure, other than the office, do they share?

While I've been talking about the ARRL, this same issue exists with all the other amateur services you use. QRZ.com, eQSL.cc, eham.net, clublog.org, your local regulator, your amateur club, your social media accounts, all of it.

What information have you shared?

Do you have an internet birthday, address and middle name?

Recently I received a meme. It shows two individuals talking about life, the universe and everything. They discuss their favourite books, the first movie they ever watched, the name of their pets, what car they learnt to drive in, their interests and other things you talk about when you meet someone new and interesting. The last image of the meme shows the heading: "Security Questions Answered, Welcome Amanda."

So, my question is this: What's your favourite colour and your mother's maiden name?

Seriously, next time you access a service online, have a look at what data that service has. When you sign up, consider the requirements for the service and how much information that's worth. Do you really need to send your birthday, your gender and your physical address with a copy of your passport or another government approved identity document? If you're being asked for the name of your first pet, consider answering something unique. In my case, I generate a random string of characters to use as an answer for each security question.

The ARRL "incident" is the tip of the iceberg. This problem is't going away, it's only going to get bigger and happen more often.

Final observation. With the potential of a global shopping list for thieves coming out of the database at the ARRL, will you be sharing your station address next time and if you're subject to the GDPR, the General Data Protection Regulation, perhaps it's time to ask your online service providers just exactly what they're doing to protect your information, and that includes the ARRL.

I have sent two emails to the ARRL in relation to these questions, but have yet to receive an acknowledgement, let alone answers.

By the time this reaches you, perhaps the ARRL has answers to my questions and more.

I'm Onno VK6FLAB

The origin of our amateur bands

Sat, 05/25/2024 - 12:00
Foundations of Amateur Radio

The origin of our amateur bands

It's hard to imagine today, but there was a time when there was no such thing as either the 80m or the 20m amateur band, let alone 2m or 70cm.

Picture this. It's the roaring 20's, the 1920's that is. Among a Jazz Age burst of economic prosperity, modern technology, such as automobiles, moving pictures, social and cultural dynamism, the peak of Art Deco, we're also in the middle of a radio boom where the world is going crazy buying radios as fast as they can be constructed, there are hundreds of licensed broadcasters, the bands are getting crowded, radio amateurs have been banned from the lucrative radio spectrum above 200 meters, and can only play in the "useless short waves" using frequencies greater than 1,500 kHz. And play they did.

On the 2nd May 1925 amateurs proved they could communicate with any part of the world at any time of the day or night when Ernest J. Simmonds G2OD and Charles Maclurcan A2CM made a daylight contact between Meadowlea, Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, England, and Strathfield, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia on what we now call the 20m band. This contact occurred not once, but regularly, for several days, using 100 Watts.

To give you a sense of just how big news of this feat was, on the second scheduled contact the Prime Minister of Australia, Stanley Bruce, sent a message to England's Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin: "On occasion of this achievement Australia sends greetings."

If you recall, the IARU, the International Amateur Radio Union, was a fortnight old at this point. Less than a year later contact was made using voice.

Between the banning of radio amateurs from frequencies below 1,500 kHz at the London International Radiotelegraph Conference in 1912 and the Washington International Radiotelegraph Conference in 1927 the world had irrevocably changed. In 1912 the discussion was almost all about ship to shore communication. By 1927, the world had tube transmitters, amplitude voice modulation, higher frequencies and what the 1993 IARU President, Richard Baldwin, W1RU calls, "literally an explosion in the use of the radio-frequency spectrum".

In 1927 individual countries were beginning to control the use of spectrum, but there was no universal coordination, no international radio regulation and as we all know, radio waves don't stop at the border.

Richard W1RU, writing in 1993 says: "In retrospect, the Washington conference of 1927 was a remarkable effort. It created the framework of international radio regulation that exists even today. It had to recognize and provide for a multitude of radio services, including the Amateur Service. It was at this conference that amateur radio was for the first time internationally recognized and defined. Bands of harmonically related frequencies were allocated to the various radio services, including the Amateur Service."

While the IARU was two years old, it really hadn't represented amateur radio on the international stage, until now.

The 1927 conference defined an "amateur" as a "duly authorised person interested in radio electric practice with a purely personal aim and without pecuniary interest."

The harmonically related frequencies that were allocated to the Amateur Service are recognisable today. I'll use current band names to give you some context.

1,715 kHz to 2 MHz, or 160m, 3.5 to 4 MHz, or 80m, 7 to 7.3 MHz or 40m, 14 to 14.4 MHz or 20m, 28 to 30 MHz or 10m, and 56 to 60 MHz or 6m.

Of those, the 20m and 80m bands were exclusive to amateurs. The 10m and 6m bands were shared with experimenters and the 160m and 80m bands were shared with fixed and mobile services. You'll notice the absence of bands we use today, the 2m and 70cm bands, 15m and the so-called WARC bands to name a few.

The final ratified document goes into great detail about the requirements, the restrictions, how to deal with interference, how to allocate frequencies and numerous other provisions, many of which will look familiar, almost a hundred years later, if you've ever looked at the rules and regulations under which you operate as a licensed amateur today.

There were various radio amateurs at the 1927 conference, but as Richard W1RU puts it: "much of the credit for the success of amateur radio at that conference has to go to two representatives of ARRL -- Hiram Percy Maxim, president of ARRL; and Kenneth B. Warner, Secretary and General Manager of ARRL."

While Richard points to their roles in the ARRL, you might recall that Hiram was elected international president of the IARU and Kenneth its international secretary-treasurer.

Whichever way you look at it, whichever organisation you credit, today we have amateur bands thanks to those efforts made nearly a century ago.

I'm Onno VK6FLAB

On the nature of Inspiration ..

Sat, 05/18/2024 - 12:00
Foundations of Amateur Radio

Over the years you've heard me utter the phrase: "Get on air and make some noise!". It's not an idle thought. The intent behind it is to start, to do something, anything, and find yourself a place within the hobby of amateur radio and the community surrounding it.

Since starting my weekly contribution to this community, thirteen years ago, almost to the day, I promise, this wasn't planned, you'll see why in a moment, I've been working my way through the things that take my fancy, things that are of interest to me, and hopefully you. From time-to-time I don't know where the next words are going to come from. Today they came to me five minutes ago when a good friend, Colin, VK6ETE, asked me what inspires me, after I revealed to him that I didn't know what I was going to talk about.

That's all it took to get me rolling.

There are times when getting to that point takes weeks, I do research, figure out how something works, explore how it might have been tackled before, if at all, and only then I might start putting my thoughts together, often I'll have multiple stabs at it and if I'm lucky, sometimes, something emerges that I'm astonished by. Today is much simpler than all that, since the only research required is to remember the people I've interacted with.

Last week I met an amateur, Jess M7WOM, who was in town. Until last week, we'd never met and interacted only online. We discovered that we have a great many things in common. A joy for curiosity, exploration, technology, computers and a shared belief that we can figure out how to make things work. That interaction, over the course of a day, continues to fuel my imagination and provides encouragement to try new things.

The same is true for a friend, Eric VK6BJW, who asked what they should do with the hobby after having been away for a long time with family, children, commitments and work. Just asking a few simple questions got the juices going and provided inspiration to start playing again.

Another amateur was bored and claimed to have run out of things to do. A few of us started asking questions about their exposure to the hobby. Had they tried a digital mode, had they built an antenna, had they tried to activate a park, or as I have said in the past, any of the other 1,000 hobbies that are embedded within the umbrella that we call amateur radio.

Right now I'm in the midst of working through, actually truth be told, I'm starting, Okay, actually, I've yet to start, reading the online book published at PySDR.org. Prompted by a discussion with Jess last week, I started exploring a known gap in my knowledge. I likened it to having a lamp-post in front of my face, I can see to either side, but in-between is this post, obscuring an essential piece of knowledge, how one side is connected to the other. In my case, on one side, I can see the antenna, how it connects to an ADC, or an Analogue to Digital Converter. On the other, I can also see how you have a series of bytes coming into your program that you can compare against what you're looking for, but the two are not quite connected, obscured by that .. post. I know there's a Fourier Transform in there, but I don't yet grok how it's connected.

Recently I discussed using an RDS, or Radio Data Systems decoder, called 'redsea', connected to 'rtl_fm', in turn connected to an RTL-SDR dongle, that is, you connect an antenna to a cheap Digital TV decoder, tune to an FM broadcast station and use some software to decode a digital signal. It turns out that the PySDR book serendipitously uses this signal path as an end-to-end tutorial, complete with all the code and example files to make this happen. I actually read the chapter, but it's assuming some knowledge that I don't yet have, so I'm going to start on page one .. again.

So, what has this got to do with Inspiration, you ask. Well, everything and nothing. Inspiration doesn't occur in a vacuum. It needs input. You cannot see light without it hitting something, radio waves don't exist and cannot be detected until it hits an antenna, the same is true for inspiration. It needs to hit something. You need to react, it needs to connect.

That is why I keep telling you to get on air and make some noise.

I'm Onno VK6FLAB

Automatic FM DX decoding

Sat, 05/11/2024 - 12:00
Foundations of Amateur Radio

Much is made in our hobby about working DX, that is sending and receiving distant radio signals. How distant is up for debate. Depending on where you are, DX might be outside the continent, outside the country, or in my case you could easily say, anything outside of my state, since the nearest border is about 1,240 km away from here. For giggles, the distance between Albany in the South West and Wyndham in the North East of the state is 2,400 km and that's via radio wave. By car it's 3,570 km. To be clear, we're still inside VK6.

All that to say, DX is in the ear of the beholder.

If that's not enough, there's a group of amateurs who are of the strident opinion that for DX to count it must be a two-way contact. That is, both stations need to hear each other and as such, those amateurs believe that a mode like WSPR, the Weak Signal Propagation Reporter can't possibly be considered DX, even if you can discover that your station was heard on the other side of the planet.

I'm going to skip right over those who tell anyone who will listen that FT8 isn't real radio because it's just computers talking to each other.

This to give you some context when I introduce the next idea, namely FM Broadcast DX. I'm acutely aware that this isn't amateur radio, there's no two-way communication, it's probably not DX and besides, it's computers. That out of the way, let me tell you about something I discovered.

Many, but not all, FM broadcasters transmit multiple signals when you tune to their station. One of those is a signal called RDS, or Radio Data Systems. It's used to show you the name of the station, sometimes what song is playing, what style of station it is and other information like road traffic alerts and emergencies. You can decode this using an RDS decoder.

Recently I was browsing YouTube. I came across a video on the Broken Signal channel that digs into the world of FM-scanning to log any RDS information for the purpose of finding DX stations. The video goes into great detail on how to set this up with Windows, by copying files into various places, updating XML files, configuring sample rates, connecting virtual audio cables, running several tools simultaneously and it goes on to demonstrate how this all hangs together.

While I was impressed with the idea, the implementation didn't speak to me, since I wince at the notion of copying random files into an application installation directory and besides I'm a Linux user.

So, I went hunting.

Turns out that there is an RDS decoder for Linux, called "redsea", written by Oona OH2EIQ. It's on GitHub. Compiling it is pretty straightforward, follow the instructions and it should work as advertised. You'll also need to have "rtl-sdr" installed so you can run a tool called "rtl_fm". Again Oona's instructions should help you out. I will add that I'm assuming that you have a so-called RTL-SDR dongle, it's a cheap USB device that can be coerced into pretending to be a software defined receiver with about 2.2 MHz of bandwidth.

Based on the example shown, I immediately tuned to a local station and RDS information started filling my screen. To let you know how simple this is, you run the "rtl_fm" tool and send its output to "redsea" which decodes the information and displays it on the screen. That's it. No more moving parts, no XML files, no shenanigans with virtual audio cables and the like.

Stage one complete, on to stage two, scanning.

The "rtl_fm" tool has the capability to scan a range of frequencies. I tried this, but didn't really get anywhere, since for the scanner to work you need to set the squelch in order to switch between frequencies, but if you're aiming for a weak signal, it will never be heard if your local FM broadcasters are belting away 24 hours a day.

So, instead I'm scanning each frequency between 87 MHz and 109 MHz, every 10 kHz, for 10 seconds, to see if there's any RDS data to be heard. I send that to a file and when I feel the urge, I can go check to see what I've heard.

I haven't yet put this up on GitHub because I'm considering making it a contribution to the "redsea" project instead of a project of my own.

Now, at this point you might wonder what all the fuss is about. Well, the same method could be used to decode your local amateur repeater idents, or the NCDXF beacons, or any other kind of interesting information. I saw one user link "rtl_fm" to "multimon-ng", a tool I've spoken about before.

You should also check out Oona's website, windytan.com, there's a whole range of signal processing stories to be found, including dealing with flutter distortion on Steamboat Willie and a very cool spiral spectrogram.

I'll leave you with one question. Why haven't you installed Linux yet?

I'm Onno VK6FLAB

A place for everything and everything in its place..

Sat, 05/04/2024 - 12:00
Foundations of Amateur Radio

Some life lessons require additional reinforcement from time to time. This week I was strongly encouraged to remember a lesson that can be summarised as: "A place for everything and everything in its place." It was first uttered like that to me a quarter of a century ago by a client who used it frequently around their staff.

It means that all the stuff that fills up the space around you, in this case, physical stuff, needs to have a specific home and if you're not actively using it, that is where it should be. This is useful in a context where you have lots of little things that you need from time-to-time, or if you have several people dependent on the availability of a single thing, like say the labelling machine used to tag equipment.

The other day an incident involving a tiny tablet that went flying across the kitchen bench, bounced over the edge and vanished, not helped by the fact that taking the tablet was time sensitive and the fact that the vacuum cleaner was right there - no the tablet was not inside, I checked. I walked around the bench to the other side and started rolling on the ground with the aid of the torch on my phone. Ten minutes in, still nothing. I remembered that my go-bag has a torch, so I went to get it from its place.

One problem, it wasn't there. I turned the bag upside down and went through it. Nope, no torch. That's two things that vanished. Neither has resurfaced at this point. I went to the chemist to get another tablet and took it 40 minutes late.

The torch however was not so easy to resolve.

My, what I call go-bag, has a bunch of life affirming essentials. It started pretty soon after becoming a radio amateur. It has two jumpers, long-leg underwear, an under shirt, a towel and a microfibre cloth, leather gloves, mosquito net, medication, band-aids, toilet paper, soap and some empty bags. It also has a torch, well, not right now it doesn't.

After failing on my mission to locate the torch, I started stuffing the contents of my go-bag, straight back into its bag, only to realise that I wasn't helping future me. I stopped, pulled everything back out and started folding everything neatly. Then I repacked the bag.

I've put in a stand-by torch, in Dutch they're called a "knijpkat", or a mechanically operated torch. You squeeze it in your hand and in doing so you move a dynamo that charges either a battery or a capacitor. It's called a "pinch cat" because it sounds a little like that. The light is fine for getting around in the dark, but you wouldn't mistake it for a super bright, eyeball burning, LED torch.

In case you're wondering why I'm going into such detail about this, it's because you never know when you need something. It might be urgent, or it might not be. Having your stuff organised in such a way that you can find it, can sometimes be the difference between life and death.

Now I get it. Not everyone works like this. I have for decades had a system on my desk where I know where all the bits of paper are and it's not helpful if someone cleans it up, because at that point I have no reference to anything and I will have to go through the whole box of things to find what I need.

When my partner and I travelled around Australia in an Iveco Daily stuffed to the gunnels with electronics equipment, clothes, food, camping gear, a two metre satellite dish and plenty of other things, I had a system that involved four filing cabinets bolted into the van, combined with a dozen or more crates, metal hooks, straps and a safe. I was forever putting things away in the exact same place, each time.

It's not a process that comes naturally to everyone and so we settled on a process where I would pack the van so I could lay my hands on anything within seconds, from the socket set to the satellite signal finder, from a clean pair of shorts to a raincoat, from a fuel funnel to a water funnel. Pro-tip, don't mix the two. Tools aside, of course this system also applies to the first aid kit and the fire extinguisher, the fire blanket, band-aids and medication, and in this case a torch.

You might ask how this could apply to amateur radio. Go-bag aside, looking around my radio shack, it has lots of little things, like adaptors, measuring gadgets, chargers, fly leads, microphone clips, coax switches and plenty of other stuff.

If everything in your shack is in use, this isn't an issue, but if you're like me and don't have your NanoVNA, and all the SMA to something adaptors, or plenty of other things lying around for that "just in case" time, then having a place for everything and everything in its place is a very productive way to keep things organised so you don't spend half your life looking for things.

Similarly, if you know where your portable shack is, your battery charger, an emergency antenna, or some other essential item, you'll discover that when it comes down to the pointy end of a situation, this might make a difference.

So, how do you keep your life, and shack, organised and what other processes and methods have you tried?

I'm Onno VK6FLAB

The origins of the International Amateur Radio Union

Sat, 04/27/2024 - 12:00
Foundations of Amateur Radio

In the early 1920's long distance communication using radio was a growing interest. At the time it was thought that communication that we take for granted today, over long-distance HF, was limited to long wave or extremely low frequencies, the lower the better. With that restriction came massive antennas and high power transmitters, available only to commercial and government stations.

Then radio amateurs let the cat out of the bag by discovering that so-called "short wave" radio could be heard all across the globe. As an aside, today, "short wave" seems quaint, because we've discovered that even shorter waves can be used to communicate, right down to nanometre communication as shown by NASA in its XCOM technology demonstration on the 12th of May, 2019. On a daily basis we use 120 mm and 60 mm waves when we use 2.4 and 5 GHz Wi-Fi for example.

As a result of the discovery of short wave radio, a gold-rush emerged. There was a hunger in the community for radio, businesses and communities adopted the new medium, there were radio courses being taught in Universities, church services and other forms of entertainment started filling the airwaves. Comedy, talk shows, music, concerts, serials and dramas spread across the electromagnetic spectrum and radio amateurs who had discovered the phenomenon were running the risk of being pushed aside by commercial interests willing to pay for access.

As I've said before, in many countries at the time, amateur radio was actively discouraged, sometimes it was even illegal.

Before we continue, I should quote some statements made about radio before the gold-rush which at the time was seen as "Telegraphy Without Wires".

In 1865 a Boston Post editorial proclaimed: "Well-informed people know it is impossible to transmit the voice over wires and that were it possible to do so, the thing would be of no practical value."

Lord Kelvin, President of the Royal Society, said: "Radio has no future." and went on to say: "Wireless is all very well but I'd rather send a message by a boy on a pony", he also said: "Heavier-than-air machines are impossible." and "X-Rays will prove to be a hoax."

Not all statements aged as badly. The New York Times said in 1899: "All the nations of the earth would be put upon terms of intimacy and men would be stunned by the tremendous volume of news and information that would ceaselessly pour in upon them."

Back to the IARU. Before a business trip to Europe, the board of directors of the ARRL asked their President, Hiram Percy Maxim, to encourage international amateur relations, which on 12 March 1924 resulted in a dinner given, at the Hotel Lutetia in Paris according to Hiram, a "certain dining room" by "the most distinguished radio men of Europe."

Hiram goes on to say that: "This A.R.R.L. President has sat in at a good many very impressive radio meetings in the past, ranging from Maine to California, but he has never sat in at a meeting where there was quite as much thrill as at this meeting in Paris where the amateurs of nine different countries sat down together."

The countries were, France, Great Britain, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, Luxembourg, Canada and the United States. Hiram remarks that "Denmark was represented by a letter in which regret was expressed at the inability to have a representative present and asked that the amateurs of Denmark be counted in." You should dig up a copy of the May 1924 edition of QST to get a sense of occasion where the ARRL president compares the thrill of the "hamfest" to the atmosphere during that dinner and pities those who have never experienced it.

During the meeting it was decided to form an organisation which was going to be called the International Amateur Radio Union. A temporary committee was formed that appointed Hiram Maxim as the chair and Dr. Pierre Corret as secretary to take charge of the details to create a permanent organisation. The final decision was to call for a general Amateur Congress on the Easter Holiday of 1925 where the IARU would be formalised.

On the 14th of April, 1925, 250 radio amateurs from 23 countries met in Paris and over the next four days the details of the new Union were hammered out. Among those details were that the organisation was chiefly for "the coordination and fostering of international two-way amateur communication, that it should be an organisation by individual memberships until strong national societies had been formed in the principal nations and a federation would be feasible, and that its headquarters would be located in the USA."

The constitution was written over a day and night session and by the morning of the 17th of April, every delegate had a copy and then the hard work began, approving the constitution, section by section, by the entire Congress. On the morning of the 18th, elections were held and Hiram U1AW was elected international president, Gerald G2NM, international vice-president, Jean F8GO and Frank Z4AA councillors-at-large and Kenneth U1BHW international secretary-treasurer.

With the election complete, the IARU was officially in business.

The new constitution was published in English, French and Esperanto. Why Esperanto, you ask? In the middle of 1924, the ARRL adopted Esperanto as its official auxiliary language. According to Clinton B. DeSoto, W1CBD, author of a fabulous book "Two Hundred Meters And Down - The Story of Amateur Radio", that might have been the highest official recognition that language ever received.

Credit to Clinton for much of the time line and wording I've shared here. I'll leave you with one final quote from his book.

Clinton W1CBD writes: "One day amateur television is bound to come, however remote though that day may be. It is, indubitably, inevitable that one day amateurs will be able to see each other, as well as talk with each other; and when that day comes the development of amateur radio as a social institution will have taken another great step forward - at least according to present standards. But by then the standards will have changed, and amateurs will have something more to work toward, and the ultimate will still not have arrived. There are always new goals, new horizons. May it fall to amateur radio to march many steps toward the goal of complete knowledge ere its footprints are lost in the sands of time!"

I'm Onno VK6FLAB

Weaving radio into your life.

Sat, 04/20/2024 - 12:00
Foundations of Amateur Radio

A great deal of energy is expended on the notion of operating portable. I've talked about this plenty of times. Issues like power, antennas, suitable radios, logging, transport and time of day all come to mind. Some activities are framed specifically as portable operations. Things like Summits On The Air, or SOTA, Parks On The Air, or POTA, World Wide Flora and Fauna, or WWFF. There's field days, portable contests and specific activities like the 2014 activation of FT5ZM on Amsterdam Island and the 2016 activation of VK0EK on Heard Island. I mention those last two specifically since I had the distinct pleasure of meeting those teams and had the opportunity to interview each amateur whilst enjoying a typical Aussie BBQ. I'll point out that no shrimps were thrown anywhere. You can find those interviews with FT5ZM and VK0EK on my website at vk6flab.com.

Each of these activities are framed in the context of the activity, as-in, you climb a mountain with a radio and then you make noise.

That's not the only way to go portable. One of my friends checks in to the weekly F-troop as a portable station most weeks. Glynn VK6PAW gets in his car, drives to some random location and participates from wherever he happens to be at the time. In doing so, the radio part of it, is the add-on between leaving home and arriving at a destination for a cup of coffee.

Charles NK8O works all over the United States. When he checks into F-troop, he's rarely in the same place two weeks in a row. In between work and sleep you'll find him activating a nearby park. He's been doing this for quite some time. While this is a POTA activity, he finds parks that fit into his life, rather than point at a park and make a specific trip there to activate it.

Before I continue, I'd like to mention that I'm not dismissing making a specific trip. Far from it. The point I'm making is that making any such trip is extra work. It's an added activity in your life. Whilst entirely enjoyable, there's plenty of times where that's just not possible.

Instead I'd like to look at this from the other side.

Both Glynn and Charles have a radio with them. Perhaps not all the time, but often enough that they can activate their station when they happen to be in a suitable location.

I've similarly put a radio into my luggage when going on a holiday. It might transpire that it stays there, or it might be that I happen to find a picnic table at the side of a water reservoir that happens to be in the shade and just begging to try a radio at.

In other words, if you have a radio handy, you can handily use it when the opportunity comes to pass.

So, what do you bring with you? If you're like Charles, you'll have a QRP radio, a Morse key, a battery and a wire antenna. Glynn has a vertical that lives in his car and the radio is bolted in.

For a while I had my radio permanently mounted in my car and I suspect that will return there in the not too distant future. It was removed for a service that involved the transmission being replaced after it failed after only a 140,000 km on the clock. Thankfully a fellow amateur had a spare car we could use, but I wasn't game to drill holes for an antenna and I'm pretty sure they were pretty happy about that.

The more I look at the activities that others report on, the more I have come to realise that the people who get on-air the most are the ones who have found a way to weave radio into their day-to-day life, rather than rely on specific amateur radio activities and plans.

I confess that I miss sitting by a local lake making noise or finding a random car park with shade that is just begging for someone, anyone, to turn on a radio and have a go.

So, how do you approach radio in your life, and how might you find ways to incorporate it into the gaps?

I'm Onno VK6FLAB

RF is all around us ... starting your own station frequency survey

Sat, 04/13/2024 - 12:00
Foundations of Amateur Radio

As a self-proclaimed radio nerd I'm aware of the various amateur bands. Depending on your license, your familiarity will likely vary. I've never been on 6m for example, but I have a good working relationship with the 10m band.

Amateur bands aside, there's plenty of other activity across the radio spectrum. It occurred to me that I've never actually stopped to take note of what specifically I can hear from my own station. Think of it as a station frequency survey.

Obvious sources are AM and FM radio broadcasters. Then there's the aviation frequencies, the local control tower, arrival and departure frequencies as well as Perth airport ground on occasion. There's the ATIS, the Automatic Terminal Information Service. There was a time when I could hear various aviation non-directional beacons, or NDBs, that are near me, but many of them were switched off in 2016. I haven't yet found a current list of which of the 213 remaining navigation aids that form part of the Backup Navigation Network across Australia are still on the air.

As it happens, there's currently some horrendous noise on HF with several new potential sources that I have not yet identified, a pool pump, a bank of solar panels, plasma TV, you name it.

Staying with aviation, I've briefly played with Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, better known as ADS-B, or ADSB, on 1090 MHz. If you have a PlutoSDR, I updated the dump1090 program to use Open Street Map several years ago. You can find it on my VK6FLAB GitHub page. If you want to see some very interesting visualisations for ADSB, have a look at the adsb.exposed website.

Further up the frequencies are things like 2.4 and 5 GHz Wi-Fi. In a previous life, before I was an amateur, I played with Ku-band satellite frequencies in the range between 12 to 18 GHz, specifically DVB-S, or Digital Video Broadcasting - Satellite.

While that's an impressive list of things, it leaves an awful lot of unexplored territory. For example, the local trains and public transit authority, the fire and emergency services, the volunteer bush fire brigades, water bombers and the like.

I've not even looked at local digital services like DVB-T, that's the terrestrial standard, or the local radio version, DAB+, or Digital Audio Broadcasting.

Then there's pagers, and countless marine services and channels, the ubiquitous CB frequencies and a couple of pirate ones, and global services like GPS, weather satellite and other Earth monitoring services.

Note that I'm specifically highlighting things that I can hear at my station, or more precisely, should be able to hear. I'm in the process of figuring out which particular tools I need to actually have a stab at hearing and decoding things like weather satellite.

I wouldn't be me if I didn't try this with my hands tied behind my back. I'm limiting myself to things I can hear using the antennas that I already have. I don't, well not at this stage, want to start building and installing more antennas, probably because in the not too distant future I plan to finally erect a replacement HF antenna, but that's a story for another day.

As for now, I'm plotting noise levels using a tool called rtl_power. I'm working on figuring out what extra noise has joined my environment. I'm also starting to make a concerted effort to document specifically what I've actually heard. Not so much a continuous log, more of a one-way log if you like, some might call it a shortwave listener log.

What RF sources have you heard in your shack and how many of them did you document?

I'm Onno VK6FLAB

It's all just text!

Sat, 04/06/2024 - 12:00
Foundations of Amateur Radio

The other day I had an interesting exchange with a contest manager and it's not the first time I've had this dance. As you might know, pretty much every weekend marks at least one on-air amateur radio contest. Following rules set out by a contest the aim is to make contact or a QSO with stations, taking note of each, in a process called logging.

Using logging software is one way to keep track of who you talked to, a piece of paper is another. If your station is expecting to make less than a dozen contacts per hour, paper is a perfectly valid way of keeping track, but it's likely that most contests expect you to transcribe your scribbles into electronic form. Which electronic form is normally explicitly stated in the rules for that contest.

While I mention rules, you should check the rules for each contest you participate in. Rules change regularly, sometimes significantly, often subtly with little edge cases captured in updated requirements.

On the software side, using electronic logging, even transcribing your paper log, can get you to unexpected results. I participated in a local contest and logged with a tool I've used before, xlog.

Contests often specify that you must submit logs using something like Cabrillo or ADIF. There are contests that provide a web page where you're expected to paste or manually enter your contacts in some specific format.

Using xlog I exported into each of the available formats, Cabrillo, ADIF, Tab Separated Values or TSV and a format I've never heard of, EDI. The format, according to a VHF Handbook I read, Electronic Data Interchange, was recommended by the IARU Region 1 during a meeting of the VHF/UHF/Microwave committee in Vienna in 1998 and later endorsed by the Executive Committee.

The contest I participated in asked for logs in Excel, Word, ASCII text or the output of electronic logging programs. Based on that I opened up the Cabrillo file and noticed that the export was gibberish. It had entries that bore no relation to the actual contest log entries, so I set about fixing them, one line at a time, to ensure that what I was submitting was actually a true reflection of my log.

So, issue number one is that xlog does not appear to export Cabrillo or ADIF properly. The TSV and EDI files appear, at least at first glance, to have the correct information, and the xlog internal file also contains the correct information. Much food for head-scratching. I'm running the latest version, so I'll dig in further when I have a moment.

In any case, I received a lovely email from the contest manager who apologised for not being able to open up my submitted log because they didn't have access to anything that could open up a Cabrillo file. We exchanged a few emails and I eventually sent a Comma Separated Values, or CSV file, and my log was accepted.

What I discovered was that their computer was "helping" in typical unhelpful "Clippy" style, by refusing to open up a Cabrillo file, claiming that it didn't have software installed that could read it.

Which brings me to issue number two.

All these files, Cabrillo, ADIF, TSV, CSV, EDI, even xlog's internal file are all text files. You can open them up in any text editor, on any platform, even Windows, which for reasons only the developers at Microsoft understand, refuses to open a text file if it has the wrong file extension. This "helpful" aspect of the platform is extended into their email service, "Outlook.com" previously called "Hotmail", which refuses to download "unknown" files, like the Cabrillo file with a ".cbr" extension.

With the demise of Windows Notepad, another annoying aspect has been removed, that of line-endings. To signify the end of a line MacOS, Windows and Linux have different ideas on how to indicate that a line of text has come to an end. In Windows-land, and DOS before it, use Carriage Return followed by Linefeed. Unix, including Linux and FreeBSD use Linefeed only; OS X also uses Linefeed, but classic Macintosh used Carriage Return. In other words, if you open up a text file and it all runs into one big chunk of text, it's likely that line-endings are the cause.

It also means that you, and contest managers, can rename files with data in Cabrillo, ADIF, CSV, TSV, EDI and plenty of other formats like HTML, CSS, JS, JSON, XML and KML to something ending with "TXT" and open it in their nearest text editor. If this makes you giddy, a KMZ file is actually a ZIP file with a KML file inside, which is also true for several other file formats like DOCX to name one.

Of course, that doesn't fix the issues of broken exports like xlog appears to be doing, but at least it gets everyone on the same page.

Word of caution. In most of these files individual characters matter. Removing an innocuous space or quote might completely corrupt the file for software that is written for that file format. So, tread carefully when you're editing.

What other data wrangling issues have you come across?

I'm Onno VK6FLAB

Are you up for a global party?

Sat, 03/30/2024 - 12:00
Foundations of Amateur Radio

Did you know that on the 18th of April, 1925 a group of radio amateurs had a meeting in Paris? During that meeting they formed an organisation that still exists today. Before I get into that, let me share a list of names.

- Wireless Institute of Australia - Radio Amateurs of Canada - Radio Society of Great Britain - Vereniging voor Experimenteel Radio Onderzoek in Nederland or if you don't speak Dutch, can't imagine why, the Association for Experimental Radio Research in the Netherlands, - Deutscher Amateur Radio Club, I'll let you figure out what that translates to, - American Radio Relay League

Language aside, one of these is not like the other.

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, at a moment likely before either of us was born, Hiram, wanted to send a message from his amateur station in Hartford to a friend in Springfield. That's 26 miles, or less than half an hour up the road via I-91.

One minor problem.

At the time, in 1914, using amateur radio for anything beyond 20 miles or so was considered a miracle, so Hiram asked a mate at the halfway point in Windsor Locks to relay a message on his behalf. Soon after he convinced his local radio club in Hartford that building an organised network of stations to relay amateur radio messages was worth doing and the American Radio Relay League was born. Co-founded with radio experimenter Clarence Tuska, Hiram Percy Maxim became its first President. He held many callsigns, most recently W1AW.

At the time, longwave, the longer the better, was considered the pinnacle of communication technology. The airwaves were becoming crowded, so amateurs, in search of more space and always up for a challenge, started experimenting at the edges. The shortest wavelength available to amateurs at the time was the 200m band, or 1,500 kHz. In December 1921 the first successful transatlantic transmissions were achieved. Hundreds of North American amateurs were heard across Europe on 200m and several were heard in reply.

In a dance that continues to this day, new technology replacing old, spark gap transmitters were replaced by vacuum tubes and using those amateurs were able to use even shorter wavelengths. While technically illegal to operate on higher frequencies, the authorities put their fingers in their ears and let those crazy amateurs play on those useless bands.

This is a world without international prefixes, no VK, PA or G stations, so amateurs were forced to come up with their own system to indicate the continent and country.

This was clearly organised chaos at the edges of legality, in many countries amateur radio operation was actively discouraged or even illegal. Soon the same person who came up with the notion of the ARRL led the way and organised a meeting in Paris. That meeting, on the 18th of April, 1925 marks the forming of the IARU, the International Amateur Radio Union and as I said, it exists today.

That date, the 18th of April is globally, well at least in the amateur radio community, uh, well, small pockets of the amateur radio community, known as World Amateur Radio Day.

2024 marks the beginning of a year of celebration for the centenary of the organisation that brought together this global rag-tag group of enthusiast experimenters that we fondly refer to as our community.

The IARU theme for this year is: "A Century of Connections: Celebrating 100 years of Amateur Radio Innovation, Community, and Advocacy" and you're invited.

So, what types of activities are you planning, what kind of celebration do you have in mind, and who is bringing the birthday cake?

I'm Onno VK6FLAB

What's with all that lack of noise?

Sat, 03/23/2024 - 12:00
Foundations of Amateur Radio

During the weekend I participated in a contest. Before you get all excited, it was only for a couple of hours over a few different sittings and while I had plenty of fun, of the eleven QRP, or low power, contacts I made, nine were on VHF and UHF, two were on 10m HF. Mind you, 3,200 and 3,500 km contacts are nothing to sneeze at.

It has been a while since I've actually been on HF, so long that it felt like turning on a new radio and getting used to it all over again. If you're not sure what I'm describing, let me elaborate. A new radio takes a few goes to calibrate your ear and brain to learn what you can expect to hear and work. On some radios if you can hear the other station, you can work them. On others, unless they're pegging the S-meter, you've got no chance. QRP adds an extra layer of challenge.

A few hours earlier I'd been discussing HF band conditions and one comment that stuck in my mind was that the bands appeared to be more quiet than normal. At the time, nobody could put a finger on why or how, but there appeared to be a general consensus that this was the case.

So when I tuned to 10m, after having switched off my beacon, which I promptly forgot to turn back on for 36 hours or so, I went hunting for stations to contact. I heard a few, but their signals were very weak. Noise levels were amazing, very quiet, but stations were very low down. I thought nothing of it, given the discussion we'd just had, and persisted and as I said, I made two contacts.

Since contacts were hard to come by, I started playing with another experiment I'm working on. Specifically I'm using something called USBip to connect to some USB devices across my network. The way it works is that you plug the devices, like a CAT cable and a USB sound-card into a Raspberry Pi, then using another computer, you can access those devices wirelessly as-if they're physically connected to the other computer. This is useful if you don't want to subject an expensive computer to any stray RF that might be coming in via a USB port. I've written some hot-plug support for this, so you can just connect and disconnect USB devices without needing to fiddle. You'll find the code on my github page.

Given that stations were few and far between and not staying in one place, I moved to a local AM broadcast station, so I could test the USBip sound-card link and all I heard was absolute garbage audio coming from that station. I turned on another radio and it too had the same rubbish audio. After a couple of hours fiddling with RF-Gain and still not getting anywhere I started searching online for an answer. One thread, 27 posts long, seemed to describe what I was hearing. Bill N8VUL supplied the answer: "Make sure AGC is on"

So, no. It wasn't, on either radio.

Why it was off on both radios I will never know. It did make me start exploring again just what other settings I have access to on my radio and what they sound like. Turns out that there's not a lot to be found that has any basis in fact. There were a lot of videos showing amateurs pushing lots of buttons uttering phrases like: "Can you hear the difference?" with nothing much materially changing.

The closest to something useful was a YouTube video by Doug N4HNH, called "ATT, IPO, [and] RF Gain" in which he shows some of the effects of each of those options on a Yaesu FT DX 5000. One thing I noticed is that the radio has a neat display that shows the signal path as it passes from a selected antenna through those options and more, highlighting which ones are in use.

I started hunting around to see if such a block diagram exists for my FT-857d. Unfortunately I didn't manage to find any such diagram, not even for another radio. The closest I got was the image on page 30 of the FT DX 5000 Series Operating Manual.

I did learn that the attenuator on my radio is 10 dB and it doesn't function on 2m and 70cm. As for the AGC, the user manual doesn't help much. It states that it's used to disable the Automatic Gain Control and normally it should be left on. There's some discussion around the interaction between the "RF Gain" knob and the AGC, but I must confess that finding useful examples of this managed to elude me.

At this point I have no idea what the difference is between the block diagram on the FT DX 5000 and my FT-857d, other than the obvious single antenna port and plenty of missing features. I find it surprising that for a radio that was introduced over 20 years ago, this kind of information appears to be lacking. Especially since it would help any new amateur operate their radio better and understand the impact of each particular setting on the signal that they were hearing.

If you know of any such resource, reach out, my address is cq@vk6flab.com

Meanwhile I'm going to spend some quality time with my radio and the manual and see what other hidden gems I can find and if you know me at all, you'll know that this isn't the first, second or even third time that I'm going through the manual of a radio that I've now owned for nearly as long as I've been an amateur.

I'm Onno VK6FLAB

The skyhook dilemma ...

Sat, 03/16/2024 - 12:00
Foundations of Amateur Radio

Whenever I'm out in the bush in the process of erecting some or other wire contraption, uh, antenna, I cannot help but think of the iconic Australian rock band, Skyhooks, not for their glam rock inspired music, nor for their pure mathematics and computer science degree holding guitarist, but for their name.

In antenna erection, a skyhook is called for when you point at a spot in the sky and will into being an attachment point for the wire antenna in your hand. It's always in the perfect spot, holds any weight and of course it's made from unobtainium.

Absent a skyhook, there are other ways of hoisting an antenna into the air. A recent discussion revealed that in some places catapults and trebuchets are frowned upon, if not outright illegal. Can't imagine why. Depending on their size, they may be difficult to transport.

In the same vein, antenna launchers, lightly camouflaged spud guns, are essentially a gas pressurised tube, causing a projectile to be launched by releasing a valve. Those too are pretty restricted and for good reason.

Fortunately there are plenty of other ways of getting things to be in the right place.

Let's explore.

One option is to bring along a pole, made from whatever is at hand, a multi-element fibreglass pole made by Spiderbeam, mine is 12m long, has always worked for me, though I will confess that I have managed to break one. It did take a 135 degree bend in the tip to achieve that. I'll hasten to add, I didn't set out to do that. Previously it had easily sustained 90 degree abuse in heavy wind. I purchased a new one. I've used it for years. It's not cheap, but it works.

Alternatives, much less strong, are using fishing rods or much less flexible, aluminium tubes, pool cleaning extension poles, even painters poles and at a pinch, lengths of wood screwed together, or if you're a Scout, logs lashed into some contraption.

Then there's using the nearby landscape.

Getting a wire into a tree is an activity that's fun for young and old. Not so much for the person attempting it. Often this starts with throwing things at the tree. You might find a spanner, tie it to a rope and whirl it around, letting go at just the right moment to get it to where you're going. This is not a safe activity and not recommended away from emergency medical assistance, you've been warned.

This graduates to using things like a monkey's fist knot. I was given a brightly coloured one, lovingly hand crafted by Alan VK6PWD. It's reminiscent of a Sea Scout woggle knot. Truth be told, it's too beautiful to use, or rather risk losing. Tie it to a line and whirl and throw. Then there's the arborist throw bag, same deal.

Each of these whirling activities are fraught. Mainly because you need to strike a balance between the strength of the line, strong enough to be chucked, uh, thrown, but weak enough that you can break it if it gets caught and believe me, it will.

There's the option of co-opting your dog's ball launcher. Tie a rope to the ball and hurl. Success depends on how quick your dog is in catching low flying tennis balls.

The last time I went fishing was in 2003 when I used a string and a safety pin to catch an, admittedly, tiny fish at Harry's Hole using a tiny piece of bread, took all of 5 minutes. That said, I have a new fishing rod, well, it was new when I purchased it, but now it's a couple of years old. It was the absolute cheapest one I could find. I also bought a box of sinkers.

Purchased on the advice of Bob VK6POP, I've used that rod many times to launch a sinker at a nearby tree and used it to pull through some line and then an antenna. It's still a balance between using a fishing line that's strong enough to handle the weight of a sinker and weak enough to break when you want to. The sinker needs to be just the right weight too. Too light and you'll launch it at the right branch where it will stay for the rest of the life of the tree. Too heavy and it will end up somewhere in the bush, never to be found. Grey sinkers tend to vanish in the grass, so if you can find it, look for something nice and bright, fluorescent is best. In a pinch you can use a couple of sinkers, like when you've run out, but in my experience they tend to wrap themselves around a branch.

Of course you could also just climb into a tree, or hire a cherry picker, but I'm not that flexible, either in my joints or wallet, so those options don't do it for me.

If you have a friendly arborist nearby, there's no shame in paying them to attach a pulley to the required branch in your backyard. Just make sure that the line you use on the pulley cannot escape the groove and get jammed between the wheel and the cheek, don't ask me how I know.

So, what ways do you use to summon a skyhook and does it include a Siberian jukebox?

I'm Onno VK6FLAB

Technology at its finest ...

Sat, 03/09/2024 - 11:00
Foundations of Amateur Radio

So, the 19th of February 2024 came and went. As it was, my day started with the highest minimum that month, 27.5 degrees Celsius, that's the minimum overnight temperature. The maximum that day here in Perth, Western Australia was 42.3 degrees. The day before was the highest maximum for the month, 42.9. If you're not sure, that's over 109 in Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit's scale.

That same day the Australian regulator, the ACMA, launched a new era in Amateur Radio. Moving from personal amateur licenses we legally became part of a class license regime. We have the option to hand our license back and get a refund, but the cautious side of me prevailed and I've not yet handed back my license, since it's currently the only proof that my callsign is valid, the one issued to me in December 2010.

I contacted the ACMA to ask about this and was told that they were having display issues with their system and was sent an image showing both my callsigns and email address. I'm not saying that I don't trust the person sending this to me, but I'm fairly sure that "but your honour, it was in an email" isn't going to cut it if push comes to shove. Curiously my name appears to be missing, showing the word "Blank" instead. Their IT team has been working on displaying F-calls for weeks now. I mean, seriously, these were first issued in 2005. Do we really need to spell this out?

The ACMA continues to actively encourage amateurs to hand in their license and points out that any delay in doing so will reduce the amount that may be due. It also points at Schedule 4, Part 2 subclause (7)(1)(d) of the Radiocommunications (Amateur Stations) Class Licence 2023, to assure me that my callsign is mine and mine alone, irrespective of what's in the register. It goes on to say that the letter they sent back in January, the one they had to resend, since they got my callsign details wrong, explained that I could hand back my license and that my ability to operate hinged on my qualification, not my callsign.

Here's the rub. Let's say that I'm qualified and that the letter I have proves it. I am required to identify myself on-air, the regulations say so. This means that in order for me to claim that I am who I say I am, there needs to be a register with that callsign. Apparently I'm in the register, but nobody other than the regulator can prove that.

One thing that appears to be missing is a solid understanding that the register of callsigns is used by the amateur community to determine if a callsign heard on-air is assigned or not. I mean, I could call myself VK6EEN and without the register who's to say that it's mine?

It's not confidence inspiring to say the least.

Then there's the register itself. There's an online component, which you can use to search for a callsign. As I said, mine isn't visible, neither is any other four letter F-call. As a test, I've been scrolling, one page at a time, for the past hour, to get to VK6F, starting at VK6A, to see if it shows up, but I'm not holding my breath. For some reason the developers who built this appear incapable of rendering a simple table in anything less than 36 seconds per page, so much so that Chrome thinks that the page has crashed and offers to kill it, every time.

Funnily enough, if you extract the URL from within the page and copy it, you can download all 176 pages for VK6 callsigns in less time than it took me to write this sentence. Unsurprisingly, F-calls are not there. Did I mention that this software, released a month ago, is already using depreciated features in my current web browser, which came out a week before the new register went live?

It gets better.

If you actually want to manage your callsign, you need to create an account on the regulator's portal, called ACMA Assist. When you load the ACMA Assist URL and click the "Sign up or log in" button, 134 different URLs from all over the Internet are hit, across 34 different domains, including Facebook, Google, Microsoft, LinkedIn, Markmonitor, Monsido, several content, font, icon and javascript libraries, and plenty more. This is a Government website, requiring that I authenticate to it, and to do that, I'm required to provide more identity documents than the tax department needs and wait for it, authentication is outsourced to some random domain, so you're entering your details into a third-party service.

You have the choice of using the Government identity provider, one that requires a mobile phone and an app, or use a Government owned company that prefers a mobile and a different app, but offers access via a website on yet another domain.

Now it gets funky. If you pick "driver's license", you'll discover that everything that's on your license is information that the form wants. So anyone with a photo of your license can sign up and identify as you, like the chemist who required a photocopy of it so you could buy Sudafed for your debilitating hay fever, because instead, you might use it to create methamphetamine, or the nightclub that required it so you could enter the venue because of course they do, or the telecommunications company that provided access to your details during a recent hack.

Just so we're clear here. I'm now required to validate my identity to access a callsign that is already in the database, already has my email address linked to it and is for an amateur license that I already have been in possession of and paid for since 2010. Never mind that I used to email the regulator to have them issue an invoice that I paid for via credit card, no authentication at all, and that was for a personal license, issued specifically to me.

We'll also ignore that if you signed up with ACMA Assist a year ago, you don't need to validate, not then, not now.

Speaking of email. The ACMA has just sent me one telling me that I can request and fill in a form and email or fax it to them to update my records instead. That's interesting, but what about the privacy implications of tracking by the worlds mega corporations on a Government site or even the security theatre for something that according to the regulator isn't even my permission to operate?

I'm all for giving the regulator the benefit of doubt, but if this is the future of Amateur Radio Licensing in Australia, I'm beginning to wonder just which Wild West Orwellian landscape I stepped into and I'm asking myself is this the best that our limited tax payer dollars can achieve?

If you want to see this for yourself, open up your browser, press F12 and have a look at the network connection tab while you visit the ACMA Assist portal.

Finally, I have one question.

Why are our so-called representative bodies, the WIA and RASA, not jumping up and down about this?


I'm Onno VK6FLAB

The Art of finding an operating location

Sat, 03/02/2024 - 11:00
Foundations of Amateur Radio

When you operate your station portable, either for fun, or for points, you might be surprised to learn that getting on air and making noise isn't quite as simple as bringing a radio and turning it on.

Aside from the need for a reliable power supply, batteries, generator, solar panels, or a magic mains socket, there is the requirement for bringing enough gear to get on air, but not so much that setting up takes days, or even hours.

The decisions you make are influenced by where you decide to operate from. If you want to stay in your car, the location is not nearly as influential as when you decide to find a park where you want to have some fun.

Finding a location is not a trivial process. If you only plan to get on air for an hour to activate a park, you pretty much get what you find, but if you plan to be on air during a contest for the day, other things start to come into focus. For example, what are the toilet facilities like, are we digging a hole, or is there a public facility nearby?

Depending on the time of year, the temperature and weather will influence your choice. For reasons I'm still unsure about, most of the contests in Australia are in the middle of summer, so wearing long sleeves, sunscreen and a hat is the starting point for your adventure. Sitting in the midday sun for any period of time, absent a breeze is not fun, so shade becomes a requirement, not a nice to have. Mind you, at least we don't need to contend with meters of snow, well, not where I am. In other words, what works for me might not work for you.

Finding locations is tricky. You can drive around, consult satellite maps, look for desirable attributes and still be rudely surprised when you get to the point of turning on your gear.

One of the best lessons I learnt was operating from my car during a contest that awarded points for operating in as many different locations as possible. I used a satellite map to find a location within each boundary and then drove from point to point. If I recall, I set-up in over 30 locations across a 48 hour period. It taught me a great deal about discovering high voltage power lines on a satellite map, the impact of trains on your HF radio, the difference that geology has on your antenna and what a safe location looks like and what the typical hallmarks are for a scary one.

My most recent discovery tool is a public toilet map. It's not perfect, the user interface is horrid and for some reason it needs to navigate from the Timor Sea to each toilet, but those issues aside, it does help eliminate locations that lack facilities.

I am in the process of cross referencing the Parks On The Air map with the Toilet map to see if there are some nearby parks that have shade, a loo and the opportunity to park nearby to reduce the amount of lugging required for the gear we intend to bring to the next field day.

So, what are your tips for finding a place to operate? What kinds of things have you learnt that influence what choices you make?

Before I go, one pro-tip. Keep a record of where you actually operate and whilst you're at it, what you used, and not. You can thank me later.

I'm Onno VK6FLAB

Getting things done .. or not.

Sat, 02/24/2024 - 11:00
Foundations of Amateur Radio

Have you ever had a day when nothing you started actually got anywhere? I've had a fortnight like that. Several weeks ago I wrote a couple of articles about emergency communications and its tenuous relationship with our hobby. As a result I managed to get a week ahead of myself and started using that week to do some long overdue analysis of the WSPR or Weak Signal Propagation Reporter data set. I've started this process several times and I finally had a whole fortnight to come to grips with 6.7 billion rows of data. Spoiler alert, it hasn't happened yet.

The data contains a record of every reception report uploaded to WSPRnet.org since Tuesday 11 March 2008 at 22:02 UTC. It's published in compressed comma separated value text files and after previously spending weeks of wrangling I managed to convert each one into an sqlite3 database. This wrangling was required because some amateurs used commas in their callsigns or grid squares, or backslashes, or both, and SQLite import isn't smart enough to deal with this. After doing this conversion, I could actually query 191 different databases. I could collect the results and three weeks later I'd have an answer, just in time to download the next month of data.

Garth VK2TTY suggested that I look into parquet as an alternative. No joke, This Changed My Life. I managed to convert all the compressed CSV files to parquet, a process that took a day, rather than a week with SQLite, and then I could start playing. If you're going to do this yourself, make sure you have a big empty hard disk. After a few false starts, the report that previously took three weeks, returned in three hours, and if we're getting technical, since I know this will make at least somebody laugh, the parquet files are stored on a USB drive connected to an iMac that has the directory mounted via sshfs to a virtual Linux desktop machine that's running the duckdb binary inside a Docker container running on a different virtual Docker machine. If you're keeping track, the database travels across USB via two SSHFS mounts to duckdb and it still only takes three hours. So, impressed doesn't even begin to describe my elation. If you're asking "why?" - the answer is that I don't run untrusted binary executables on my host machine.

This allowed me to start doing what-if queries when I discovered a fun issue. A chart I generated with minimum, average and maximum power levels over time showed that there was at least one station that was claiming that it was transmitting with 103 dBm. For context, that's multiple times the power of HAARP, the High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program which in 2012 was the most powerful shortwave station using "only" 95.5 dBm, or 3,600 kilowatts, and only 2 dBm shy of the 105 dBm or 32 megawatts used by AN/FPS-85, part of the US Space Force's Space Surveillance Network, able to track a basketball-sized object 41,000 km from Earth.

In other words, 103 dBm is less of a whisper and more of a roar. Funnily enough, not every receiver on the planet reported these transmissions, but more than one did, so the issue is at the transmitter. Unfortunately, when I started looking for reports using more than 60 dBm, there were plenty to choose from, over 18 thousand. While that's less than 0.0003%, it made me wonder how much of the data is dirty and what should I do about it?

There's other examples of dirty data. My beacon has been reported on 24 MHz, which is odd, since my licence conditions do not permit me to use that band. Odder still is that several other beacons, normally on 28 MHz like me, were also reported on 24 MHz by the same station. How often does that happen?

I've previously reported the missing data from the hybrid solar eclipse in 2023, just under two hours and 12 minutes before the eclipse and the 38 minutes following it was missing. I've not yet checked to see if it magically reappeared.

Then there's the faulty decodes. I've talked about this before. Different WSPR versions are better or worse at decoding and the point at which it breaks down varies. In other words, some decoded data is inevitably wrong.

I have previously charted activated grid squares. Apparently, all of Earth, yes, all of it, has at one time or another been used both as a transmission or reception site. Including point Nemo, the top of Mount Everest, all of the arctic and antarctic and plenty more out of the way places, like say the Surveyor Generals Corner located in the Ngaanyatjarraku shire - look it up. Interesting patterns emerge when you split activations down per band. It's not clear if those are decoding artefacts or man made claims.

I've asked the HamSci community for guidance, since dropping incorrect data on the floor doesn't seem to be the right way to go about things, and whilst correcting data seems obvious, what do you change it to and how do you know what's correct?

So, no progress to show for two weeks of work and barely enough to whet your appetite to get on air and make some noise.

Some days are like that.

I'm Onno VK6FLAB