Monday, October 30, 2023

The CW

The ham radio hobby for me is incredibly fun.   It is fun because I get to do technical things -- electronics, fabrication of antennas, and integration of systems that involve radio.

I have always preferred the analog nature of ham radio (SSB or CW).  Data modes like FT-8 or other modes that I don't quite understand are less interesting to me because they are modes that I cannot personally decode, but rely on Software (or special hardware) to decode.   FT-8 is fun except that is difficult to decode without a piece of Software. 

In the analog modes (SSB and CW) the PHONE operations are just easy.   Pick up the mic, call CQ and have a QSO as naturally as using the telephone.

CW on the other hand is deceptive.  Yes, it's analog but it's a digital message but carried analog.   The hobby for me has increased in levels of fun when I am able to decode the CW in my head.   I don't think there is any other mode in ham radio that is 'decoded' between the ears.

So it comes down to this -- being able to decode CW in my head is the frontier of my work in ham radio.

This leads to an often stated question -- how does someone get better at working CW?  What does it take to be able to "copy" CW easier, faster and reliably.   What does it take to work CW just as fluently as if working SSB?

CW is just a language, really.  The tokens of the language are represented in a code -- Morse code and the skill to work CW is being able to recognize instantly the tokens of a message in CW as rapidly and easily as one recognizes tokens of a message uttered in SSB.

A unique feature of working CW is also knowing the grammar of working in the CW language.

By grammar I mean the use of the language.   And, the grammar in CW has a frame of reference.  In one frame of reference, the contesting frame of reference, the grammar of working CW amounts to recognizing call-signs and comprehending the exchange required.    

5NN TU  for just a plain signal report.

or 

5NN 001 TU   for a signal report and a serial number, and so on.

In another context or frame of reference the CW QSO has a different grammar.  The 'rag-chew' context means aside from the obligatory exchange of call signs and signal reports, we engage in a conversation as fluid and free as any SSB QSO.   That kind of work in CW needs far more skill in recognizing tokens and words than the contesting context.

I'd argue that the contesting context is the precursor to good abilities to work 'rag-chew' conversational QSO in CW.

And by that working even further back -- recognizing tokens and words in CW in either context has a precursor of instantly recognizing the tokens.    I think the CW lessons I've seen refer to this as Instant Character Recognition.

When I started out on CW I did not know what path is best.   But I made a guess.  The first guess seemed the practical option.  Learn how to send and recognize my own callsign.

First thing to learn:  Sending my call and recognizing my own call.

this means practice sending my call sign and being able to hear that my callsign is heard on the frequency.   I must have spent days and weeks just practicing sending my callsign 1000's of times and being able to recognize my own callsign coming back to me.

The first device I used to send CW was a Bencher BY-1 paddle and I accidently wired it up so that the left paddle was the 'dah' and the right paddle was the 'dit'.  That proved to be a mistake because as I learned later -- most have it the other way around.  But I had spent so much time sending letters and numbers with that dah-dit ordering (left to right) that I couldn't re-learn the motions for sending the characters in the dit-dah ordering.

But as far as recognizing letters, I tried a lot of different software programs to help me practice.  I must have downloaded a dozen or so programs but the one software package I gravitated to was the Ward Cunningham MORSE program.

Second thing to learn:  The letters and numbers.  I didn't know the right method to do this so I took a brute force approach and just began to simply learn how to hear and send the letters and numbers.  I used the MORSE program by Ward Cunningham.



It was a PC Windows application.   It was simple.  It plays a letter and I have to type in the letter that I hear and if I'm correct, it plays another letter.  If I am not correct, it replays the letter until I get it correct.  The software manages a score level internally -- in other words the author of the Software decided that if a letter is consistently correctly identified the software adds a new character to the mix.  In one session the user starts with four letters.  If the user keeps the session running and goes for about 30-40 minutes by then (maybe earlier) the software will be throwing the user all of the letters and numbers randomly.    That's what I did.  I ran MORSE until

1. All of the letters and numbers were being thrown at me.
2. I can correctly recognize the letters on the first hearing.

That was good for a while.  And for years that's all I did.   I would work DX over CW when I had to (when the DX station was only operating CW -- or more typically when the SSB pile ups were just too much for my tiny power station..  Sometimes it felt like 500W wasn't enough -- but that would change later).

Years go by and then I found a book called "The Complete DX'er"  (Bob Locher, W9KNI)   We know this book.  It's great.    

I don't know how I missed this book, but I didn't really realize what it was until much later.  Maybe around 2009-2010.  I think I read the book in one short weekend.   What a revelation -- so much of what I was doing before was plain wrong.    I think (without exaggerating) that the weekend I put the book down, I worked 11 new DXCC in one evening.. But that was probably helped by band conditions and propagation.  But, I also attribute it to one key concept -- better listening.  Listening to where the DX is and transmitting where I know the DX is listening.   I began to understand better the effect of working-split -- I worked split but I would not set the VFO-B frequency correctly -- it wasn't being set to where  the DX was listening -- so I tried to learn how to figure out when the DX station came back to a call, where was that station transmitting from.   UP, yes, but where? How far up? etc..

Then I began to unravel the QSO text in the book.  The QSO in Bob's book were likely fictionalized (perhaps not) but the grammar is what stood out to me.  When to say things, what to include, what not to include, when to repeat things, and so on.    That was a revelation also.

The third thing to learn:  Sending and copying the bare essentials of a CW QSO.   Recognizing the basics:

5NN
RST
TU
TNX
BT
DE
HW?


This is what I call my idle period.  The period of working CW only when I needed to, never because I wanted to -- because I didn't want to.    CW was painful for me -- I couldn't copy very well,  I would not  be able to copy a QSO and probably copy call-signs if I actually 'ran' vs 'search-pounce'.

That idle period lasted for a long time.  I racked up 205 DXCC and about a 1/3 of them CW, but the plateau was around 200 DXCC and it wasn't budging.   Even better listening wasn't always the key -- it was the fact that I was still operating SSB for the most part -- gravitating to it and I think I wasted a lot of time making my SSB signal good (ESSB, audio-chain work, all sorts of things).

In the midst of that I was becoming fascinated with the DX'peditions.  How are they planned?  How do they do that?  Where do they go, how did they get there?  What do you take with you?   What's the process?    Further, I was fascinated about being on a DX'pedition myself.   I have skills in making antennas out of whatever I have at hand, and so the boot-strap (my perception) operation seemed to be something I could do.    Get to the island, string up some wire and hook up the station and begin!  Right?  Wrong.  Way wrong.     I didn't know at all what I didn't know.   Still too many unknowns.

I found this book DX Aku written by another Bob.  His name is Bob Schmieder, KK6EK and the book is sort of a philosophical view of the inspiration of going that particular island.  The book covers an evaluation of one's heart and soul in DX'ing as well as the account of the technical innovations.

It was around this time that I passed DXCC I believe.  As much as I wanted to keep working new DX countries I was also fascinated by the prospect of going to a DX location.    I just didn't have any idea what that meant.  I knew at least that I had no skills necessary to be there, so I muddled around trying to figure that out.

I purchased the DVD's produced by Bob Allphin, K4UEE and the VooDoo Contest Group.  What I was looking for is details about how they operated.   What did they do, how did they do it, and sift through the footage to figure out the skills involved.  It was fun to watch the videos, but I still wasn't getting the big picture.  Still those videos are really wonderful.  The sad thing is my DVD player won't play them anymore and I'm not sure why.  Maybe they'll upload them to YouTube some day.

The fourth thing to learn:  Balance between ham radio life and other things.  I didn't learn this skill too well and for a while I was unable to keep the balance.  I literally put the radio away for a long time while I handled the job of being a father and maintaining a household and doing all of the things that mattered with that role.   

Eventually, around 2020, in the early phases of the Pandemic, I found myself in my radio shack picking through the projects and organizing things. I wanted the shop a bit cleaner and so I began to store and organize my tools and projects.  I could see the concrete floor much easier now!

My wire loop antenna had long since crashed down in some recent windstorm.  So I took a look at fixing that.  I found some new wire and re-mounted the wire loop back into the tall cedars.   This time using a drone to lift the guy line support over the trees rather than using an air-powered 'bazooka'.   Then I went to work on the radio equipment.  The home brew linear always needed a bit of an overhaul - so I tore into that and re-built the cooling system and re-built the parasitic suppression -- two things that seemed to never had been quite right.   I studied the schematic again and realized that I might not have been biasing the finals with the right voltage so I replaced the Zener with a different part and then got the whole thing ready for working conditions.

My K3 was still running and after some tuning and adjustments I was back on the bands -- A kilowatt from the homebrew was nothing --- it was a 2KW linear amplifier and on 40 meters conditions looked the best.  I was making contacts again, but on SSB and usually in the middle of the night when 40 meters was actually in great shape.  A lot of DX.    I found myself working a lot of JA and Pacific Ocean stations.

By 2023 rolled around I was going to make some changes -- it was either I was going to get ready for DX'p or I wasn't.  And I am getting too old to mess around.   Now is the time.

The trip to Visalia (which I won't replay here since there a lot of articles on this Blog about that already -- just scroll back to April/May) was the pivotal experience.

The fifth thing to learn:  It's about CW and Contesting.

I went to learn what to learn from the experts.  And, I did.  I learned a lot.   It boiled down to getting the boxes checked -- CW and contesting.    What Tom ND2T called "Followership" is another important lesson -- learning to stay in the groove with the team.  The leader calls the shots and the team works when the whole team is moving in unison towards the goal at the direction of the leader.  

But as far as CW and contesting -- that was what I had to do.   And that also is well documented here already (just go through the back-log of posts).

But what is not posted there is the detail about the classes I was taking.

CWOps offers classes in CW and they are valuable classes.  If you need to learn CW and learn how to use it, I would recommend the classes.   Alternatively, the Long Island CW Club offers a different kind of class-style.  I would recommend them also.  The cool part about Long Island CW Club (LICW) is that the 'registration' is just showing up.  No forms to fill out.   It helps to be a member of LICW because those proceeds help their organization.

In those classes there was one very important fact that I had not realized and I want to share it.

What they explained is that, when training yourself on software programs or web sites to practice CW the right thing to do is -- set the speed/difficulty just outside (above) your comfort zone.

For example, if you can copy 17 wpm, set the dial to 19 wpm.    If you can copy 20 wpm, set the dial to 23 wpm, and so on.

The lesson they taught was to practice with the speed/difficulty set so your "error rate" is about 15-25%.  If you're using Software and there are no errors, then you're not growing your skill.   

For instance, in Morse Runner, whatever speed you have it set to, if you can copy the calls perfectly every time on first hearing and make zero mistakes, then turn up the speed.

If you're using LCWO, set the speed higher so your error rate is 20%.   Make mistakes!   If you're not making mistakes, then the speed/difficulty is set too low.

At this point I still work CW and do my best.   I was in a few contests and worked on a 2-OP team which was fun -- we did pretty good on Salmon Run.

My new friends in the Western Washington DX Club are doing amazing work.  Some are taking trips very soon to the Pacific to activate H44WA.  They are going to be working with great operators, including Robin WA7CPA and Rob N7QT.    They are also going to be experimenting with a new DQRM avoidance system -- it's all on their web site for details.

What's next?  Just keep working CW and getting better at recognizing call signs first time.   And in the middle of that keep projects going -- antenna building is something I am going to help with soon.   I got some plans for a "Vertical Dipole Array" that need some machine work done.

That's it for now.  Until later,

-jeff  

W7BRS

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Nice hat

The DX'p that is going to H44WA is going to work the low bands.  I offered to help them out and make some cap-hat inserts to go on top of their vertical masts.

I made a initial version that wasn't quite the right design.  Originally, the design slipped over the top of the mast, but after the feedback from the expedition leaders, they were re-made so the 'hat' would slip inside the mast.   

These are roughly 6-7" long and the slender stem is machined to 0.430" so to slip inside the 0.436" ID of the mast.

Tapped with #10-32 for four even spaced cap-radials and one more for the driven element.

Easy to make.  If you need one, just let me know.



Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Old Photo of the Electronics Store

My grandfather (W7BRS) owned and operated an electronics store on 1st Ave, Seattle.

He also operated the Victoria Hotel just above the store.    Luckily a good part of the original stone work still remains, but the hotel is gone as is the business space around it.  I used to go there as a kid when I was just starting out in electronics.

The store was sold in the 70s.  The picture was taken in the late 60s.



Things happening

It has been a busy few months since I hung up my software-spurs. On deck -- DX'pedition for Lord Howe Island Lord Howe Island (July 202...