Looking for computer logging program

I have managed to make a few QSOs since my previous blog entry, so I thought that justified another one.

I know that people read this blog, presumably through google searches for one technical buzzword or another.  But if some hams run across this entry and could pass along some thoughts about logbook software, I’d be grateful.

I suddenly realized that my paper log (the old ARRL style one) is almost at an end.  And I’d like to start in on a software logbook and stick with that format from here on out.  It’s not that I’m a heavy contester or DX award chaser, it’s just that I know that I’d like to have the power of computer search behind me when I work stations, to be able to say, “hey Bob I worked you 2 years ago on 17.145” or whatever.  And if I do decide to apply for an award at some future date, it would be a lot easier to have it all digitized already.  I made some very brief inroads in this area before my radio hiatus began last fall, but just didn’t quite figure it out.

Of paramount importance to me is the ability to print out professional-looking paper copies of my log for archiving.  As much as we all rely on “The Cloud”, I prefer to also have a hardcopy on the shelf to thumb through from time to time.

The excitement over 6 m has waned since that initial “A-ha!” moment a few days ago.  I know the peak usually coincides with the summer solstice, so still a few weeks from that.  In the meantime I’ll be monitoring it for more surprises.

I worked some guys in England on 17 m this afternoon.  It was a strange situation where 3 guys, all friends and all either in the same shack or geographically very close to one another, took turns working me.  They were mostly S-5 type QSOs, only briefly making 7 or 8 and QSB taking them down.  But we made the link.  It was fun logging them, till I realized I’m just about out of log!

I’m in the process of getting myself back into the shack.  There are bags of Radio Shack parts still not put away post-liquidation sale.  And there’s the poor Small Wonders kit, just laying there, waiting to be finished.

The iron may yet get heat applied.  I’m finding myself daydreaming about filter design and smith charts and scope readings.  Iron heat can’t be too far behind.

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Radio turned on! QSOs made on 6!

It’s been close to a year according to my logbook — I finally turned on my TS-2000 again.

It started out just as a check on my VSWR for my antenna system.  Amazingly to me, both the 6m M2 loop and my 17m rotatable dipole both seemed unchanged by the ravages of a snowy cold winter and many wind storms (and a guywire encounter with a lawn mower some months back).

Then, on 6m, I caught a glimpse of CW as I was spinning the dial.  Oh 6m, you tease!

True to the “magic band” name, the signal magically vanished, never to be heard again.  And just like that I got hooked back into radio.  I started listening for band openings on 50.125 in the background while I was working on other projects (non-radio).  And, nothing.  Now I was really hooked.

That was yesterday.  This morning I turned it on and wow, signals!  At least 2 SSB QSOs were heard right away around the .125 watering hole.  I quickly made two contacts with stations down in Alabama.  They were running 3el yagis and pulled me in as an S9+ with my 100W into the loop.  I wasn’t able to pull them in quite as strong but they were loud and steady.

I told one ham that I hadn’t been on the air in many months (since August apparently).  He said that I hadn’t missed much, that HF had been fairly atrocious, but that 6m was showing signs of early-season openings.  So I will stay tuned and see what I can do.

I have a grid square map on my wall and I put stickers on the grids I’ve worked.  I enjoy seeing the bulls eye pattern that eventually forms, showing graphically the single and multi-hop QSOs. I haven’t made enough QSOs to even round out the single hop ring but I may work on that with this year’s opening, especially if it does end up being above average.

No other ham radio activity to report, except for very minor antenna inspection and maintenance (bascially sweeping away leaves and checking connections).  I always hope to get back to my projects and blog again.  I might get some of that done this summer but I’m still going to be busy with school-related and other activities.  But, all the stuff is still there on the bench and waiting to be played with given half a chance.

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Radio Shack liquidation

I’m back.  Sort of.

I still haven’t figured out how to work time in this spring for my hobby.  It’s a little disconcerting.  Every time I think I’ve got a window of time to jump onto the work bench, that window slams shut!  But I’m determined to make this happen so eventually that should slowly change.

One thing that is definitely hobby-related that has caught my attention is the closing of the US chain, Radio Shack.  I’m sad to see this happen.  As much as myself and other hams used to joke about the shortcomings of this store, nobody can deny the convenience of having one down the road for a quick part.

I heard rumor on the internet that there would be a liquidation of Radio Shack inventory.  Sure enough, I called around and found two stores near me were selling their wares at 40-60% off!  I rushed over and loaded up a goody bag of stuff.  I won’t say how much I spent but it was up there with a trip to a good swap meet for sure.  I guess there’s some of that “cheap ham” thing in my blood, but I’m going to wait another week to see if the saving percentages creep up some more.  If so, there are more things I will stock up on I’m sure.

I purchased things like wire, a run of coax, some coax adapters, bags of resistors, some project boxes, and ICs like LM-386s and 555 timers and some IRF-510s.  Just stuff to have on hand to replace things that might blow out in old projects.

The store clerk said that some remnant of Radio Shack will still exist in the back of Sprint stores.  I’m not sure how that will manifest itself.  I guess I’d be surprised if that little parts cabinet was retained.  We’ll soon know.

Long gone are the days of ham radio rigs in stores, or clerks that are hams or electronic technicians.  I felt sad seeing the various how-to guides and kits on the shelves.  It seems like part of how many of us learned about electronics and radio is falling out of our culture.  We do have the incredible internet now, but the demise of all the brick-and-mortar experiences seems a little disconcerting to me.

My next update hopefully will be on building something, not on lawnmowers and closing store chains.  Stay (somewhat) tuned.

Posted in Radio Shack | 2 Comments

Wow…December 16th?

Where have I been??

Unfortunately for the hobby, my “free time” continued to peg the S-meter at zero between now and my October 31st post!  I made it through a vast bombardment of exams and then final exams and various projects for my degree, and now here I am on the other side, “winter break”.  Even my running suffered, so you know things were bad.

I feel like the entire ham hobby has essentially been under heavy canvas blankets in a dark storage locker since about August.  All my stuff is right here in my basement lab and I see it almost every day, but instead of playing I work on papers and projects on the computer at the opposite end of the room.  After awhile, I start to feel as though being a ham or electronics hobbiest was some other life, maybe something I dreamed about!  But my lawnmower told me otherwise yesterday.

I was out doing a pre-winter final mow, mainly to chop up some more fallen leaves, when I accidentally mowed over my counterpoise/ground wire for my end-fed antenna!  It had been coiled up on top of a plastic tub housing the tuner, but over months I guess wind had knocked it down, and then fall leaves had buried it.  But the mower found it and chopped it up into a shorter length of wire!  Fortunately most of it is saved and the good thing about wire is you can solder sections together again.

The mower wasn’t quite done yet though.  It also found a buried guy anchor for my 17m dipole, a small plastic tent stake, and chopped it up good!  The guy popped loose but since I had three other guys the mast didn’t move much.

So, instead of making progress on the hobby front, I appear to be going backwards!  So my first project of the new winter season will be to make some minor repairs.  But we all know antenna farms need maintenance anyway, whether due to the elements or other reasons.

I hope this is a kick-off posting for work on my old Small Wonder kit.  I’ve got a few weeks, till mid-January, before chaos once again rules.  What I hope to do is spend 1-2 hours/week on my hobby, at least.  I need better time management skills!   We’ll see how things go.

I’ve stopped following other blogs, I no longer listen to “Soldersmoke”, and I’m not sure if that will change, mainly due to the time constraint.  I may catch up on some of it over this winter break.

I was thinking about all the learning objectives I’d had last summer.  They’re still in the back of my mind and I’m sure I’ll get to them eventually.  But it won’t make for exciting blog entries when things move at the pace I’m able to do! I’m hoping that fall semester was particularly bad for me because of the transition back into college mode being a little bit of a shock.  I’m more adjusted to the rhythms of it now and I think I’m managing things more efficiently.  That ought to open up some small windows of hobby time.

I’m not sure how others who work or are in school, have families, etc., still manage to build amazing equipment, post daily blogs or even podcasts/videos, publish to magazines, etc., and seemingly do it in stride!  That’s not me folks, not by a long shot.  I value my running and health activities, time with my wife, and focus on my career.  This hobby does have value but unless I were to quit most of that stuff it wouldn’t “move forward” much at all.  When I’m retired I’m sure I’ll have more time for it.

Anyway, for those few who are interested in the blow-by-blow kit build of an old Small Wonder Labs 40 m CW rig, stay occasionally tuned for the slow progress!

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Solder melting drought

I’ve been meaning to post for a few weeks, but it seems I can never get to it.  That’s kind of how this fall has been!

I have been completely swamped by an over-busy fall semester of classes.  I had anticipated things being busy, but not THIS busy.  I’m in the midst of a mid-life career change and the coursework necessary unfortunately has almost nothing in common with that I took for my engineering degrees.  So, it’s like I’m 20 again, except…well, I’m not.

But on balance I’m still happy to have made the switch and the feeling of overload is starting to subside a little bit, to the point where I can see myself carving out some hours to melt solder again.  When, I’m not sure.  It could be as soon as today or it could still be a week or two off, but probably not more.

I really miss the blog and more importantly the learnings and the fun of building radios and just experimenting with various parts and things.  Now that some down time has passed I have the benefit of some reflection on what I accomplished last winter through summer, and it was pretty impressive.  Not only did I get two monkeys off my back (finally finishing the Bitx20 kit and refurb of an old direct conversion project), but I learned a LOT of practical stuff and even applied some theory.  It was as intense of an experience as an engineering course, quite frankly.  But the difference was no exams, and it was a lot of fun!

But this career stuff demands almost all of my thought and attention, as I’ve said, and so I just won’t be able to move forward on the hobby side as rapidly as in the past.  Still, I will NOT abandon it or the blog!  It’s an important part of my life.

Another important part of my life that I’ve never discussed on this blog (mainly due to a “yawn” lack of interest from readers) is running.  I’ve been able to incorporate it back into my life in a much bigger way as of this summer, and so some of the hours I might have spent bent over the workbench I’m now spending out on a trail somewhere running.  So that takes up some of that free time too, and I prioritize it higher than ham radio due to the health aspects (basically, in my life, there’s breathing, eating, sleeping, running, and then everything else).

In light of all this, I think I’ll set my sights on a pretty easy target for the hobby: finishing the old Small Wonder 40 kit.  Yeah, I meant to throw that together in a week or two back in August, but didn’t quite get there.  If I can get that one done before the end of the year, I’ll think about some other things.  As with the Bitx project, my hope is to do more than just simply stuff a board.  I may build some sections off-board in my own breadboard to tinker and play with and learn from (and modify).  It all depends on how much time I have.  But the basic “stuff it and put it on the air” is something I’m trying to move away from because I don’t really learn anything from it, and at this stage in my life I’ve certainly made enough QSOs that it’s no longer that interesting in and of itself.

So…still alive, still hoping to solder, just not blogging.  Here’s hoping for a real radio update very soon!

Posted in hiatus, SW-40 | 1 Comment

17, 15 and 6 m antenna improvments

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Aluminum tubing dipole up 20 ft. 6 m loop antenna above the top of the mast.

Lots of excitement from FM07 in the last week.

I decided I just wasn’t real thrilled with the performance of the longwire on 17 m.  There were signals there, I could work DX, but the levels just seemed anemic compared to my last QTH.

So I put up an experimental quickie wire dipole in my trees and tried it out.  Sure enough, it performed just as well as the longwire for many stations.  That seemed encouraging, so I thought “what if I double the height with two masts and put a dipole at 20 ft?”  And that’s what I did.

I had this aluminum dipole from 10 years ago when I used to have it mounted to a mast on a 50 ft crankup tower in DM42 (Tucson).  Back then it worked wonders for me and I loved it.  In fact, I apparently loved it so much that the parts have endured 6 or 7 moves since then and I still had them!  So, I pulled them out, made a trip to Home Depot for a few inexpensive parts (hose clamps mainly), and put it back together.

The boom-to-mast plate is fashioned out of a piece of wood left over from my workbench hutch project.  The wood was just going to sit around and do nothing useful, so might as well press it into service and make some QSOs.  I painted it black with paint left over from my mailbox tuner project (all these leftovers are sure useful).

The masts are 2 10′ sections from Radio Shack that have a nice tapered-down end for the next section to fit on.  The elements are 4 sections of aluminum tubing, two of which telescope inside the inner-two larger ones.  If I recall the larger is around 1″ diameter.

What I found before when working with these types of antennas was that the tubing gave a much broader bandwidth at low VSWR than did a wire antenna.  And I was once again not disappointed.  In fact, the 17 m dipole also works just fine on 15 m (less than 1.5:1 VSWR).  So I got two bands for one and no traps or tuning needed.  Nice!

So that was a fun and rewarding project.  The setup looks a lot like some type of field day setup, and it kind of is.  I need to be able to easily remove everything in 2-3 years when we move again, so concrete was really not an option.  It’s also not very high.  I would love to have that antenna at least another 10 feet up to clear the roofline of the house, but doing so might upset neighbors or landlords and also represents more risk if it were to fall (right now, if it falls it just lands on the grass).  I’ve learned to tread cautiously with these things.  Even now, it wouldn’t surprise me if some sort of complaint comes along.  So I feel I’ve done the most I can do with my situation.  And it certainly gets me heard on HF.

Almost as an afterthought, I boosted the height of my 6 m loop antenna from about 12 to around 23 feet.  And as soon as I turned on the rig with the new setup, there was a big 6 m e-skip opening!  What perfect timing.

The antenna worked like gangbusters.  I collected my first grid squares from this location, getting 5 total.  I worked into EM48, EM29, EN40, EM49, and EM28.  More than one station commented that they were surprised I wasn’t on a beam or running power.  I worked two guys who were just experimenting with a mobile setup, not realizing the band was open!  That was pretty funny.  One guy was mobiling down a highway and trying different settings and suddenly he’s talking with me, a couple hundred miles away.  So, obviously on 6 you can get by with minimalist setups when there’s an opening.  I myself have operated from the mobile with just a simple whip and 100 W and even scored DX during the previous cycle peak.  I do think this loop is better than the whip and is just shy of a small yagi, and for the level of operating I do on 6 m it is more than enough till I get my own home again and re-install some towers.

It feels good to be slowly reconstituting elements of the station I had a decade back.  Finishing these QRP and tuner projects are a part of that too, just lots of unfinished ham business that is wonderful to finally accomplish.

The antenna farm work has delayed me from my SW40 kit rig I planned on whipping together quickly.  But for me, antennas always come first.  I see them as paramount, my eyes and ears to the world.  I have however unearthed the printed instructions for the kit and I really should be able to start on that in the next week.

Finally, an appeal to my vast readership.  All the antenna tinkering has also generated a lot of logbook entries, and I’m almost done with my current paper-based log.  I’m wanting to move to an electronic logbook program from here on out.  If anyone has suggestions for what they like (and don’t), please leave some comments below.

Posted in 6 m, dipole construction | 2 Comments

6m back on the air; confirmed ground enhancements

I am now fully 6m-capable for the first time in almost a decade (I don’t count mobile setups).

I installed another 10 ft mast in my yard using my new technique of pounding in short fence posts about 1 ft deep.  That’s enough to provide a base of support for these short masts without much wind load (and if not I can guy them).  Atop the mast now lies an M² 6m “HO” loop.

I used the loop in the past for the mobile when I’d drive to work and a huge 6m opening might take place.  I couldn’t drive home, but I could go out on a lunch break or after work to the truck, hook up the loop and be in business.  It was far superior to my hamstick whip and only really surpassed by my yagi.  I was very happy with it.

I’ve never run this loop from my home QTH.  I’ll be interested to see how many grid squares I can collect.  Hopefully we’ll get some F2 openings before this solar “max” is totally kaput, but I won’t hold my breath.

I’m considering putting my old yagi on this mast but considering how low to the ground I am I’m not sure it is worth the effort.  The loop may actually do just as well.

So far I’ve keyed up a local-area 6m repeater.  Like many repeaters these days it seems, nobody was on.  But I got an S9 and at least it verified the antenna was working.

The loss in the coax run is just below 3 dB.  It’s higher than I’d hoped because I had to run more than 50 feet of coax, maybe 100 ft total.  I’ve decided it’s smart to measure feedline loss before trying to establish antenna performance (not sure why I didn’t do this in the past — low VSWR is kind of meaningless in this department).

In other news, I went back onto the web SDR’s and re-checked my results on 80 m with the ground wire laying on the grass below my longwire antenna.  And once again, I saw about 5 or 6 dB improvement with the wire.  Interestingly though, it didn’t matter whether the wire was connected to the ground rod wire leading to my tuner box/feedline or not.  What made the big change was whether there was a wire present on the ground along the path of my wire.  I believe that I had a dB or two improvement when I added 2 more wires running along the first one, but it’s really tough to see those small differences when you have the propagation fades and you’re trying to take averages.

I also re-checked 160 m, but there are no web SDRs on that band within my range, so I was stuck with measuring signals on my S-meter, which isn’t as accurate.  I could not repeat the larger improvements seen previously, where I’d see ~10 dB improvement when the ground wire was connected vs. not.  So I think that was a mirage.  But, given the more detailed measurements on 80, I’m willing to bet that I would have seen a difference had I removed the wire from the grass altogether.  Maybe not 10 dB though.

I think I’m going to wrap up my work on this for now.  I don’t get down on 80 or 160 all that often, so for now I’ll probably roll the wire up and deploy it again when needed (it’s not hard to unspool).  Eventually though I should consider burying the wire along the path.  Maybe when the weather cools down and the fall low band DX season comes around.

Posted in 6 m, grounding, longwire | Leave a comment