The League is wrong on this one

I’m an ARRL member, have been ever since I got my ticket back in 2013.  And I generally support the League kind of like I support the NRA — I don’t necessarily agree with them 100%, but they’re out there doing the work I don’t have time to do myself.  In the case of the NRA, protecting the 2nd Amendment, and in the case of the ARRL, protecting amateur spectrum from being overrun by commercial interests.  Both organizations educate their constituencies and those who would like to be part of those constituencies.  Typically they do less harm than good, and to repeat myself, they keep a watchful eye on things I don’t have time to keep an eye on.

But the League’s new advocacy of expanded HF privileges for Technician Class hams is going a bit too far.

The League proposes to “expand HF privileges for Technician licensees to include limited phone privileges on 75, 40, and 15 meters, plus RTTY and digital mode privileges on 80, 40, 15, and 10 meters.”  Why?

“This action will enhance the available license operating privileges in what has become the principal entry-level license class in the Amateur Service,” ARRL said in its Petition. “It will attract more newcomers to Amateur Radio, it will result in increased retention of licensees who hold Technician Class licenses, and it will provide an improved incentive for entry-level licensees to increase technical self-training and pursue higher license class achievement and development of communications skills.”

Excuse me?  I thought that’s what incentive-based licensing was all about already.  You get a Technician license, rapidly discover (if you didn’t already know) that you’re limited to 6M and above except for a tiny phone segment on 10M and some CW frequencies on 15M, 40M, and 80M, and you’re supposed to be “incentivized” to study for and pass the General license exam so you can widen your horizons.  And then, if you’re really smart (or can study and retain the material long enough), you can pass the Amateur Extra exam and all of the keys to the amateur radio kingdom are yours.

The fact is, too many hams are stuck at Technician as it is.  Why would the League think it a good idea to expand their privileges rather than incentivize them to upgrade?  I’m living proof (even as an Extra) that you can get stuck in the digital modes for a long time without doing anything else in radio.  I don’t do code, I get tongue-tied on phone, and I’m not a repeater guy.  Plus I don’t have a lot of time to spend on the air, so I get on, make a few quick digital Q’s, and then I’m off to do something else.  That said, I got WAS in about a year mostly doing digital.  But that’s me.

If FT8 is such a big deal, and Technicians want to get in on the FT8 bandwagon, the League ought to be telling them to study up and pass the General — not giving them yet another excuse to put off (likely forever) an upgrade to a level where they have very nearly all privileges available.

Besides, what are they going to do with an HF transceiver once they get bored with FT8 and the other digital modes?  I mean, that microphone is just sitting there…and if you think they’ll confine themselves to 80, 40, and 15 meters, you’re dreaming.  I mean, the serious ones will (I would have), but soon enough, we’ll see the same issues across HF that we see now on the repeaters.  (As if we don’t already, but happily that seems to confine itself to a few watering holes rather than being spread all across the bands.)  To date, HF seems to have been less affected by that than the repeaters, for probably several reasons, such as cost of entry, antennas, etc.  But open up even a small part of HF to Technicians and the repeater abusers will undoubtedly come along — they’ll find a way.

“Now numbering some 378,000, Technician licensees comprise more than one-half of the US Amateur Radio population.”  OK — so tell them to upgrade.  But hmm, that isn’t the real problem, is it?

ARRL said that after 17 years’ experience with the current Technician license as the gateway to Amateur Radio, it’s urgent to make it more attractive to newcomers, in part to improve upon science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education “that inescapably accompanies a healthy, growing Amateur Radio Service,” ARRL asserted.

ARRL said its proposal is critical to developing improved operating skills, increasing emergency communication participation, improving technical self-training, and boosting overall growth in the Amateur Service, which has remained nearly inert at about 1% per year.

Then the ARRL isn’t doing something right.  There are lots of smart kids out there.  Almost all of them have computers (or at least access to them) these days.  There is so much going on in ham radio that uses computers.  It’s just another way to communicate without wires — and unlike your cell phone, you can talk to people on the other side of the world without having to rely on a technical infrastructure run by faceless corporations.  (Yeah, OK, hyperbole, and don’t get involved in DMR if you are looking for an infrastructure-free method of communications.)

Although, it’s possible that the ARRL is doing everything it can, but outside influences are preventing the expansion of amateur radio.  Fifty years ago, you could probably put up a 40-foot tower and hang big antennas off of it without causing anything more than maybe a little grumbling from your next door neighbor, or some bitching about RFI on channel 6 during Jeopardy.  Today, doing the same thing runs you into a maze of zoning laws and HOA rules and neighbors who know their rights and think you’re running down their property values.

Ground-mount verticals, stealth wire antennas, and even the suddenly-popular cobweb antenna might help solve that problem, but for the average new ham living in a HOA neighborhood, trying to get around the rules can be pretty daunting.  The Amateur Radio Parity Act tries to help, with a “reasonable accommodation” rule similar to the existing PRB-1 that mandates “reasonable accommodation” for TV antennas and dishes, but the Act is stuck in Congress and there’s a vocal group of hams who oppose it on the grounds that it constitutes an end run around HOA rules that you should have known about (and agreed to) when you bought your home — even if you weren’t a ham then and suddenly decided, years later, that you wanted to be one.

But these issues can be dealt with; join a club and use their station, operate mobile, use stealth methods and operate at night, whatever.  And they really don’t affect the ability to use the repeaters when you can put a J-pole in the attic or disguise one as a garden decoration or something like that, so there’s no real excuse even in a HOA to grouse that you can’t get on UHF or VHF.

No, I think the main problem is that ham radio has simply become overshadowed by newer and flashier technologies, and most people think of CB when you talk about amateur radio.  The reason for that is poor or (let’s be kind) ineffective public relations and marketing on the part of those who care.  And when I say “ineffective”, I don’t mean that the PR effort is either weak or no good, I mean that it simply tends to get lost in the noise.

For example:  During the recent natural disasters that have occurred over the past year or so, there have been some real gems come out, showing how important the Amateur Radio Service is during emergencies — particularly in Puerto Rico, but also in Florida and Texas, and in California during the big fires there.  But it doesn’t seem to me that this information got any major play.  It tended to get stomped on by the general human tragedy and the fecklessness of government, particularly that of Puerto Rico.  Because after all, ham radio operators restoring communications in the aftermath of a disaster doesn’t sell newspapers like stories about the suffering and deprivation of the region’s inhabitants, or stories about a corrupt commonwealth government that’s holding money and badly-needed supplies back from the professionals who can use them, to the point where FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers need to step in and be the adults in charge so power can be restored to the island.

The Force of 50?  What’s the Force of 50?  No habla inglés, señor.

If amateur radio can’t get a boost out of stories like the Force of 50, what the hell can it get a boost from?

I can tell you right now, expanding the privileges of the Technician license is not going to cause that many more people to wake up one morning and decide, hey, I think I’ll study up and get a ham radio license.  As far as privileges go, there is already so much that a Technician can do at VHF and above.  In the modern era, the one thing that really gave ham radio a bump came in 2005, and that was the FCC dropping the code test requirement.  People like me — who had thought about getting into ham radio for years — no longer had to learn code, and frankly, that was my big stopping point.  Well, that, and the high price of entry; we didn’t have the money when I was a kid.

There is no comparable “bump” left, short of dropping the testing altogether.  But at that point, we’d all become glorified CB operators.  Luckily, I think the FCC, while it would love to rid itself of oversight of the Amateur Service, would still find itself bound by the IARU agreements that require amateurs to be licensed by their government.  Frankly, I think that’s the only reason we still have testing, but the FCC already handed that part off to the VECs years ago, and don’t involve themselves in that aspect.

So, whither amateur radio, in a world of cell phones, the Internet, and satellite TV?

I mean, even a TV sitcom with a popular actor (who happens to be a ham) about a father and family man (who happened to be a ham) that uses ham radio as a major plot device didn’t manage to turn that many new people into hams, did it?

There are all kinds of celebrities out there who are ham radio operators.  Does that get the interest meter off the zero peg?  Nope.

So what I’m going to tell you now, after all that’s gone above, is that I don’t have the answer.  If I did, I’d use it to double the membership of my Scottish Rite valley.  And I don’t think the ARRL has the answer, either.  But I know at least part of the answer is going to involve a lot more concentrated PR effort than I’ve seen since I became a ham five years ago.  Ham radio just isn’t a piece of the culture like it was in the mid-20th century, when it often appeared as a matter of course in movies and science-fiction novels, and the Radio Merit Badge was a big deal in Scouting.  I don’t even know if it can be taken back to that level, and frankly, I doubt it.

But one thing I do know is this:  There is not a single high-school amateur radio club in any of the nine school districts comprising Marion County, Indiana.  And if you don’t get them young, good luck getting them when they’re older.

DMR anywhere redux

Man, these little Chinese knockoff ZumSPOTs are pretty robust:

pi-star@pi-star(rw):~$ uptime
15:34:35 up 13 days, 5:33, 1 user, load average: 1.23, 1.16, 0.68

It’s been running all that time on the battery box, although the battery box has been on the charger since last weekend.  It ran the batteries down from 12.6 volts to 12.0 volts in five days.  (It very quickly took the batteries from 12.8 volts in that photo to 12.6 volts.  As I noted elsewhere online, these batteries aren’t spring chickens.)

It is a bit annoying that I had to go into expert mode and open the SSH window to issue an ‘uptime’ command, though.  That ought to be on the dashboard, and unless I’ve somehow missed it, I don’t see it there.  (I mean, I see the load averages, but I don’t see the “up 13 days, 5:33” part.)  Ah well.

Much as I hate to buy another Chinese knockoff, I’m seriously considering it, since the “official” ZumSPOT boards are still not available.  I see that they’re trying to add NXDN capability now.  Hopefully at some point they’ll poke it with a sharp object and declare it finished, but meanwhile, everybody and his aged grandmother in Shenzen is selling JumboSpots dated 11/17/2017 for $42 and free shipping, I have a spare RPi Zero W and an OLED screen sitting here, and could put a second one together as soon as I have the JumboSpot in my hands…et voila, I have one to mount permanently in the car.

This is, FWIW, the same reason I gave up on Connect Systems’ vaporware CS7000 handheld (still in R&D!) and bought a Tytera MD-380.  You can beat your product to death and keep adding features and swatting bugs and tweaking it till hell won’t have it, then finally get the product out there and find others have moved on.  The Chinese are selling ZumSPOTs right now for half the price the developers say they’ll be selling them for through HRO, sometime in the sweet by and by.

Stick a fork in it, gentlemen.  It’s done.  And your market is drying up fast.  You didn’t protect your IP well enough and the Chinese are eating your lunch in the marketplace.

DMR anywhere

100% portable JumboSpot.  Possibly a bit over-batteried…

Laurels for DX Engineering

Mud pie in the face for UPS.

Dear Mr. Duffy,

With regard to my recent order #xxxxxxx, I thought you might want to know that UPS claims to have delivered the package to my front door yesterday afternoon, but the package did not actually arrive.

I am pretty sure that they left the package at the wrong address, because I had another scheduled delivery the same day that required a signature, and tracking for that shipment indicates that they made the attempt to deliver at the exact same time they claim to have delivered your shipment. However, there was no notice left on my door regarding the delivery attempt, so I can only surmise that the driver was, in fact, at the wrong address. Moreover, I was home all day – I telecommute to my job daily as I have for the past 22 years, and at the time they claim to have been at my front door, I was sitting at my kitchen table ten feet away having lunch. I think I would have noticed a knock at the door, or the doorbell ringing 🙂 In addition, I was checking outside every 30 minutes or so all day, to make sure they hadn’t “ninjaed” me and left the package without knocking or ringing, which happens a lot, unfortunately (although FedEx is actually the biggest offender in that regard).

UPS Customer Service is, naturally, giving me the run-around, suggesting I file a claim and otherwise seeming to wash their hands of the problem (of course their driver did not make a mistake, it shows delivered to my address in their system), and I thought as the shipper, you might want to know that. (This isn’t the first time they’ve misdelivered a package here, either – usually they leave it on the next door neighbor’s porch, but that wasn’t the case this time.)

Let me say that I have always been perfectly satisfied with DX Engineering and the products I have purchased from you. This problem is totally owned by UPS and doesn’t reflect on you at all.

Thanks, and 73,
Nathan Brindle KC9YTJ

Not an hour later, I had a phone call from Maria at DX Engineering, who said they were going to reship my item and put in a shipper’s claim with UPS, and to just let them know if the original package showed up.

You have no idea how much that means to me — and I wasn’t expecting it.

And partly you have no idea how much that means to me because my G5RV came apart the other night (on the end we DIDN’T drop the branch on, so I don’t know what happened) and I had ordered a new one to replace it, hopefully this weekend.  That wasn’t looking like it was going to happen, given UPS intransigence.

I just got the shipment notification and the new antenna will be on its way tonight.

Thanks, DX Engineering.  All y’all go the extra mile for Joe Average Ham, out here in the radio store wilderness.  I was already a customer for life, this just puts the icing on that cake.

Masonic Nets and other things

It being Christmas Eve, I figured I had some time to tune around, and thought I’d see if the Ohio Masonic Fellowship Net was still meeting on 3865 as advertised on the Hiram’s Hams website.

Just before 0230 UTC, I heard K8DHC identify way down in the noise.  Of course part of the noise was a couple of yahoos yakking on 3863, so they were bleeding over into 3865 for me and pretty much ruining the entire experience, but my punky antenna and the general condx may have had something to do with that, too.

So I don’t know if the Masonic net went off or not, but I didn’t hear much after that one identification other than somebody tuning up and someone saying something along the lines of, “Goodness gracious!” without identifying.  (They were, however, 5 and 9 from Indianapolis.)

It gives me a bit of a thrill, though, to think there might actually still be an HF Masonic net running on Sunday evenings.  I’ve never heard the one that supposedly runs weekdays at 1600 UTC on 14328.

So, are there actually any other Masonic HF nets running?  I’m not talking about on Echolink — that’s not radio.

Earlier in the evening, I heard K6MYC booming in from California on 7134ish, talking about antennas.  I suppose he would know, I went and looked him up on QRZ and he’s quite the interesting fellow.

Fix for an old irritation

For a long time I had a problem where system sounds would key up my rig if the SignaLink was turned on and connected.  To prevent it, I’d pretty much disabled all system sounds on the machine.  (Hate most Windows system sounds anyway.  First thing I always do on a new install is disable the startup/shutdown and login/logoff sounds.)

Anyway, I finally got fed up with the problem and solved it the other night.

There are two soundcards in the machine — the regular, default soundcard for system sounds, music, what have you — and the “USB Audio Codec” for the Signalink. Digging around with Google I found a page (unfortunately didn’t bookmark it at the time) that said to check to see if your default soundcard had Exclusive Mode enabled.  Which apparently it does by default; I know I never turned that on, but sure enough, it was turned on.

To turn it off, right-click the speaker icon in the system tray, choose “Playback Devices”, double-click whichever device is your regular sound card. (In my case it’s “Realtek High Definition Audio” for the shack machine, “IDT High Definition Audio Codec” for my laptop. Your mileage will likely vary.)

Under the “Advanced” tab, look for the Exclusive Mode box. If “Allow applications to take exclusive control of this device” is ticked, then untick it and click “OK”.  (If the second box is also ticked, no worries, it will untick when you untick the first one.)

Voila, your rig will no longer key up when you make a mistake and your computer lets you know about it in song.

Note that you should NOT change the Exclusive Mode for the codec that’s in use for your digital mode sound card. I think I tried that, and the software wouldn’t key up the rig till I turned it back on.

The one thing that has caused me the most grief with digital modes over the last four and a half years is the incomplete documentation for ham-created software that assumes you must already know this stuff.

FWIW, I know what a pain it is to write documentation; it’s my job at work, and I’ve written, maintained, and updated hundreds of pages of it for the last 23 years.  As we say, the job’s not finished until the paperwork is complete.


Wherein I pause for a moment to remember Robert F. Albright, KC9DN, who passed away last night at the ripe old age of 94.

Bob had been my stepfather since 2014, and was also a Freemason.  He held an Extra license and was a ARRL VE for a number of years.  He was (obviously) originally licensed under a different call, but I don’t have that handy, and it was so long ago that the change doesn’t show up in ULS.

Resquiescat in pace, my brother.

The “go shack” with DMR

I took this picture weeks ago but never managed to get it up here.  The “go shack” has been updated (as noted below) with the TYT MD-9600, replacing my Kenwood GMRS rig that I think may have bitten the dust anyway.

(The SignaLink is collywobbled because the bolts holding the FT-7900D in place stick up from below the shelf.  I have a plan to deal with that at some point, by simply installing a wood spacer beneath the SignalLink with holes in it to clear the bolts.)

This is, for what it’s worth, the cleanest you will see my shack desk until I build the new one that will have about twice as much square footage.

Another planned change will remove the power supplies from the top of the rack so speakers and other things (maybe including the Kenwood GMRS mobile, if its finals haven’t actually bitten the dust) can be installed.  The power supplies will go into a 2U Gator box that’s collecting dust under the desk at the moment, and the interconnect will use two sets of 75A PowerPoles that are also sitting around collecting dust.  The intent is to be able to take the go shack in the car and run it off of battery power without having to lug the heavy power supplies along with it (and I will make up a heavy cable with a splitter on the radio end for that purpose).  For normal operations, or operations with generator or utility power, the power supplies can then be brought along and hooked up separately.

Anyway, that’s for the future when I actually have time to tear the box down to that extent.

The cake, by the way, is a lie.

The firmware upgrade instructions for the MD-9600 say (in Chinglish):

“Press P1+ Alarm key(red key) to connect the power of  MD-9600, ( NOT JUST TURN ON THE RADIO!!!!!!)display blinks and open upgraded software”

This seems to translate to most American English speakers that one should press and hold P1 + Alarm and then hit the power button.

Nope.  That gets you exactly nowhere.  And I can see how they tried to explain it (“connect the power”) and why an American English speaker would misunderstand it.

The actual sequence goes like this (and it’s documented here and there on the web; I can’t remember now where I found it):

1) Turn the MD-9600 on.

2) Turn off the power supply connected to the MD-9600.  (Do not turn off the MD-9600 first!)

3) NOW press P1 + Alarm key (red key) and hold them in

4) Turn on the power supply connected to the MD-9600.

 Blank screen will blink on and off, you are now in Firmware Upgrade Mode.

They also get the concepts of “upload” and “download” backward, in my book.  The button that says “Download Update File” really ought to say “Write Update File to Radio” or something like that.  But eventually you get the idea.

Exit question:  Would it kill Tytera/TYT to hire an English-As-First-Language speaker to at least edit their documentation?

MD-9600 working fine

The TYT MD-9600 is up and running with the latest Hoosier DMR code plug (I used the one for the MD-2017 dual band handheld; the code plugs are interchangeable).  I’ve just got it sitting on my desk in the office, hooked up to my old 23W power supply, and connected to a Slim Jim J-pole that’s just hanging in the window.  So not a fabulous receiving setup, but I did get a really good signal back from the Parrot when I tested it earlier. I haven’t been able to raise the W9AMT VHF DMR repeater yet, but I think I need to use 1) a better antenna that’s 2) mounted up a little higher to get line of sight on that repeater. That’s been a constant problem from here with the hand-held transceiver, and generally having trouble reaching both the UHF and VHF DMR repeaters here is why I invested in the MD-9600. (Cue Tim Allen shouting, “MORE POWER!”)

I like this radio.  It seems like a robust unit, the mic is better than the one that came with my Tytera TH-9800, and if I had a complaint about the radio in and of itself, it would be that the radio doesn’t have a detachable control head.  Which is OK, because I’m going to put it in my go-box anyway, but it would be nice to see TYT/Tytera come out with one of these in the same case as the analog TH-9800.  Then I’d consider putting one in the Escape.  Given that I’m sure this radio has the same guts in it that they use for more expensive commercial DMR radios, I doubt that will happen.  But a ham can dream.

Which brings me back to my major bitch about this radio, hinted at in the previous post.  If you’re going to put this much thought and care into building a DMR radio, why in hell would you ship it with a cheap-ass USB programming cable that was probably bought from the cheapest cable maker in Shenzhen, and which broke before it was even used the first time?  Just because the thing said “TYT” on it isn’t good enough.  Just ship a decent generic USB cable and be done with it.

Otherwise, I have no complaints; I got the radio from Grapevine, down in Texas, and I couldn’t be happier about the service; Jason kept everyone advised about the status of their preorders, and he was even shipping radios out while Harvey was wreaking chaos down in the southern half of the state.  It’s not his fault that the cable that shipped with the radio was sub-standard, and I didn’t even bother him with it once I realized I could use a generic cable.  I look forward to buying more DMR stuff from Jason in the future.

With any luck, I’ll be able to get on the roof this weekend and swap out my 6M ground pole with the dual-band J-pole I’ve had sitting on the window sill in the shack for the last four years.  I’m not doing any 6M FM right now and I’d really like to string up a dipole for that band anyway, so it’s time to make that swap.

Older posts «