Friday, May 29, 2009

Machine Beats Man - At CW. What's Next?

Last weekend, as the throngs ooh'd and ahh'd at the latest geegaws in Dayton, there was a dramatic shift in the balance between man and machine. Every year, the Kansas City DX Club sponsors a CW pileup competition, where top DX'ers and contesters attempt to copy as many calls as possible from a cacophonous audio mix of cw callsigns. This is a true test of skill and machismo.


This was the second year for the Skimmer cw program to be put to the test against the human ops. Last year, Skimmer was sent home with bitstream between its legs, coming in a pitiful 67th against its meat puppet competitors.


But over the last year, Skimmer has been training hard, pumping up its algorithms, and flexing its filters. All the hard work paid off. At the 2009 competition Skimmer bested its nearest meat-based competitor by ten calls! Top who-man, VE3DZ, copied 51 calls signs out of the audio spaghetti, but Skimmer copied a commanding  and dominating 61. The man-machine balance has reversed.


I, for one, welcome our new digital overlords and trust they will remember my approval of their dominance when Skynet comes online.


In reaction to the looming digital dominance, a reactionary organization is emerging. BAHR, which stands for a Boy And His Radio, is a meat puppet consortium of obsolete cw operators who rail against the new digital reality. BAHR advocates that contests in general, and cw contests in particular, should consists of little more than a boy (i.e. meat puppet) and his radio, operating in isolation without the assistance of digital experts such as Skimmer. It is rumored that some BAHR members go so far as to operate only tube based equipment, but that is unconfirmed.


With the emergence of digital operators such as Skimmer, the cw contesting world faces great changes, change we can believe in. Whatever that means.


Within five years we should see completely automated cw contest bots that will run an entire contest uninterrupted by its meat puppet assistant. Only then will we discover the true capabilities of the contest station, unimpeded by the limitations of human fallacies and frailties.  Skimmer uber alles!



Tuesday, May 26, 2009

LIDS Proposes A Guantanamo Solution

With the recent announcement by the Obama administration that it intends to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, concerns have been expressed both inside and outside the amateur radio community.

Within the amateur radio community many worry that the reduction in presence at Guantanamo Bay may make KG4 a more rare entity in the DX world. Without the large number of military personnel at Guantanamo, the opportunities for radio activation may become scarce.

Outside the insular world of DXers, many Americans worry about bringing dangerous terrorists to the United States and the threat they may pose. The Lost Island DX Society (LIDS) has a proposal that should make all parties (except those within the prison) happy. LIDS proposes the only solution that can make both DXers and ordinary American citizens happy and safe.

Move the prison to Navassa (KP1).

Frequency Police Net Canceled

Last weekend was  scheduled for the inaugural running of the Frequency Police Net, sponsored by the Lost Island DX Society (LIDS). Net control attempted to call the net at the proscribed time and frequency, but was unable to take check-ins due to the incessant calling on frequency of other stations attempting to clear the frequency for the net. In addition, there were several stations attempting to relay for net control, stations he couldn't hear through the QRM. Inexplicably, a handful of stations were insisting that the net control was operating split and kept directing check-ins that net control was listening 'up five'. After twenty or so minutes, the net control station gave up, turned the rig off and proceeded to finish off the left over 807's from the weekend cookout.

Time and frequency for future sessions of the Frequency Police Net will be announced here on the Fi-Ni Report. In the mean time, it is not necessary for volunteers to maintain vigil over the net frequency to insure it will be available when the time comes.

Monday, May 25, 2009

"Juicing" Scandal In Radio-Sport Contesting?

Steroid scandals hit the Olympics, then the Tour de France, and most recently, Major League Baseball.  At times, it seems that top competitors in every arena of competition are "juicing" to gain an unfair advantage. Now come rumors that some top ham radio contesting competitors may be turning to chemical enhancements to provide an edge.


Even with the graying of the  ham radio hobby,  some are questioning how the Top Ten boxes in the major contests are dominated by a small cadre of competitors with an average age in the fifties. Maintaining the all important butt-in-chair for the duration of a 24-hour contest is difficult, let alone for the mega-contests that last for 48 hours and allow single operators to participate full time. The physical demands of sitting for such long periods can be medically dangerous even for young, fit competitors. That middle-aged radio warriors are managing to has raised suspicions.


In the hallways of the Dayton hamvention and at the contest suites, there are whispered references and rumors  of "juicing" by top operators. Although no one would go on the record, anonymous sources have confirmed that some competitors are using injections. Injections of Novocain in the gluteus maximus are used to deaden the discomfort of the long hours of sitting in front of the radio necessary to produce a Top Ten score.


The "dead butt", as the effect is commonly referred, makes it easy to withstand the pressures and discomfort from long hours of sitting in front of the radio. Additionally, the numbing effects of the Novocain often extends to the user's legs. The result is that the operator is unable to stand, let alone walk, which obviously makes it easier to stay in front of the radio during the contest.


While Novocain is a legal drug, its use for this application is certainly off label. Novocain is a prescription drug, thus not available over the counter. Also, it must be injected.


There are rumors that one northeastern contest club specifically targeted and recruited a local dentist to their ranks. He now makes the rounds of the top operators on Friday evening, administering Novocain injections during the early hours of the contest, insuring that competitors will stay glued to the chair for the duration.


No rules for the ARRL or CQ-sponsored contests specifically mention, let alone prohibit, the use of performance enhancing drugs.  Still, the users of Novocain maintain a veil of secrecy and no one publically admits its use.


When the topic is raised publically, it is met with universal derision. Many feel the use of Novocain  is unfair and should be banned.  Dead butt-ers defend their practices by arguing no rules prohibit it.


As word spreads of the practice, suspicions are aroused about top competitors. At the recent Dayton hamvention, some were closely eyeing Big Gun contesters as they walked among the exhibitors, looking for signs of limping, which may be indicative of repeated 'dead butting'.


If the practice of "dead butting" spreads, the ham radio contesting world could become the latest sport to be engulfed in a scandal involving performance enhancing drugs.


Wednesday, May 20, 2009

New DX Award Announced

How many times you have you worked a DX station or expedition, sent for the card, got the QSL, sent it to the ARRL DXCC desk and got a rejection slip? Rejected for lack of documentation. That preciously earned QSL is just so much worthless pasteboard because the ARRL won't accept it. Sure, everybody knows the DX was where they say they were. But they never got their documentation sent to the ARRL.

Well, now those worthless cards aren't so worthless. The Lost Island DX Society (LIDS) is proud to announce the DX Don't Count Century Club (DXDCCC) Award. This handsome certificate is issued for having a minimum of one hundred QSL cards rejected from the ARRL DXCC program. Only valid QSL cards from rejected DX operations are acceptable for the award. Contacts with Slim are not valid, in any sense of the word. Operations by Romeo and Don Miller also eligible for the DXDCCC award. Endorsements will be available for those surpassing the century mark. Details on submissions to follow.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Heil Premires New Noise Cancelling Headset at Dayton

Heil Audio premiered a new noise-cancelling headset at Dayton last weekend. The new headset, shown here, was developed to provide the ultimate in noise reduction performance for multi-multi contest stations and outdoor locations where noise is a particular problem, such as island DXpeditions and Field Day . Unique in the field, the new Heil NR-456 headphones, does not use active noise cancelling techniques. It operates using a cleaver passive design, utilizing acoustic phase cancelling. Production is anticipated early next year, probably the beginning of April 2010.

August is International Frequency Police Month

The Lost Island DX Society (LIDS) will celebrate International Frequency Police Month in August. The purpose is to honor all those selfless hams who spend countless hours monitoring, defending and directing DX'ers on the air. Without the volunteer Frequency Police, we might not know the DX station is operating split or listening "Up Fi" (five).

Also included, will be those stalwart defenders of net frequencies, who regardless of the hour, keep their net frequency clear, just in case emergency traffic needs to be passed. Even those nets that don't handle traffic.

LIDS will be announcing special events during August to commemorate International Frequency Police Month.

Friday, May 15, 2009

QRP "Contact" Breaks New Frontiers

QRP experimenters K1DNG and AF0OL have potentially set an all-time new QRP record for the most miles/watt for an amateur radio communication, although neither is quite sure how to quantify their achievement.


Tom, K1DNG, of Big Rock Candy Mountain, VT and Philo, AF0OL, of What Cheer, IA have been friends and QRP enthusiasts for many years. They maintain regular contact on 40 and 80m CW over the 1100 miles that separate them.


About a year ago, they began an experiment to see just how little power they could use to communicate with. K1DNG is an avid builder, homebrewer, and minimalist. He began building simple QRP transmitters, each one of a more minimalist design and lower output power. To test their QRP link, K1DNG would pick a random code word and transmit it over and over during a 15 minute window on a regular schedule and frequency each week while AF0OL would attempt to copy it. AF0OL would then email the received code word to K1DNG for confirmation.


This experiment had been going on for several months and reaching lower and lower power levels in the microwatt range. Not all weeks were successful. Sometimes it took two or three weeks to successfully get the code word received at AF0OL. The power levels were getting so low, that K1DNG was custom building new transmitters each time to insure he was getting an accurate output power.


During a two week period in March, K1DNG became overwhelmed with work and personal matters and could not make the usual weekly sked with AF0OL, however, he forgot to contact AF0OL to tell him. K1DNG had already gathered the parts on his workbench for the next generation transmitter, intended to put out just 25 microwatts, but had not had time to construct it. He had also selected the next code word - GUACAMOLE - and written it down on a note card in this station.


Much to his surprise, the morning after the usual weekly sked, K1DNG received an email from AF0OL with the code GUACAMOLE in it. K1DNG remembered the night before thinking about the sked at it's normal time and remembering the code word. However, he was too busy with other matters to go and transmit the code word. Besides, the transmitter to do so had not even been constructed yet. All its pieces still lay on his work bench. So how had AF0OL received the code word?


AF0OL says that after not hearing K1DNG the week before, he had assumed propagation just wasn't good enough for him to hear the new QRPpppp transmitter. So he showed for the next week's sked with low expectations. Without knowledge that K1DNG was not on the air, AF0OL tuned in and began combing the static for the non-existent signal. He was used to digging K1DNG's ultra-weak signal out of the noise, so hearing nothing was not new or unexpected.  AF0OL closed his eyes and let the static in his headphones wash through his brain.


AF0OL describes it as an almost Zen-like moment when he began to copy a rough, ragged signal out of the noise. He says he did not so much hear the signal as sense it. Nonetheless, AF0OL copied the word GUACAMOLE out of the static and nothingness. After the test period passed, he emailed the copied code word to K1DNG, unaware of the situation.


Upon receiving the email from AF0OL, K1DNG was astounded. How was AF0OL able to copy a signal that hadn't been transmitted, especially from a transmitter that hadn't been constructed? Nevertheless, it had apparently occurred.


If so, this represents the ultimate in QRP reception and minimalism. The uniqueness of the achievement presents some peculiar difficulties. The usual metric for QRP contacts is miles (or km) per watt. The distance between K1DNG and AF0OL is know, but what is the transmit power? The transmitter had not even been built. If the transmit power is considered zero, the miles/watt value goes to infinity. Nonetheless, this unique contact rates as the ultimate in QRP and minimalism.



Wednesday, May 13, 2009

LIDS Hospitality Suite at Dayton

The Lost Island DX Society will host a hospitality suite at Dayton this year, a sign of the growing popularity of LIDS among Big Guns and Little Pistols, alike. Aside from the drunken revelry and blatant lies of DX and contest glory, the LIDS hospitality suite will feature unique contests especially for LIDS.

The first will be the Amp Tuning contest. Participants will compete in on-the-air amp tuning on top of a DX station. Points will be given based on the amount of time of continuous tuning, with style points given for modulation of the tuning signal to defeat automatic notch filters. Blowing the amplifier tubes results in automatic disqualification.

The second contest will be the phone Helllloooo contest. Participants will give their best "Hellloooo....Helllloooo" to simulate SSB amplifier tuning. Bonus points given for foreign accents.

At press time, the exact location of the LIDS Hospitality Suite is uncertain. While cruising the halls at the Crowne Plazza, if you see a likely group hanging around, just ask if this is where the LIDS hang out and you'll be sure to find our suite.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Solar Cycle 24 to Peak in 2013

An international panel of experts has declared that Solar Cycle 24 began in December 2008 and predict it will peak in 2013, but will be weaker than any cycle since 1928. The extensive solar minimum we are currently experiencing, with  almost six months without any sunspots, is expected to end shortly. By next quarter sunspot numbers are expected to begin climbing. But the predicted sunspot number  peak in 2013 is only 78.


In a disturbing case of déjà vue, the solar cycle prediction mirrors the economic predictions from the U.S. Federal Reserve and Treasury Departments. In fact, the text is almost identical. We can take solace in the realization that economic and solar cycle predictions typically have about the same level of accuracy.


In other solar cycle developments, the Lost Island DX Society (LIDS), is attempting to lobby congress for a Solar Stimulus Package to accelerate the sun out of its current depression of sunspots in order to hopefully boast Cycle 24 to produce healthier sunspot numbers of over 100. Our lobbying efforts to date have consisted of taking several attractive interns out for drinks in order to get an appointment to see a congressman or senatorin order to plead our case. While it has been unsuccessful to date, LIDS' lobbyists have vowed to continue working their way through the congressional offices until all the attractive interns have been exhausted. 

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Dayton - Big Gun Mecca

The Dayton Hamvention is just over a week away. A yearly visit to Dayton for Big Guns is akin to the Muslim trip to Mecca. It is a religious experience that must be undertaken in order to complete your status as a real Big Gun. The majority of the Hamvention attendees are, naturally, and to be polite, not Big Guns. They are easily spotted by silly hats with rubber duckies spouting from the them and a utility belt of handheld radios that invokes vague visions of Batman.

Inside, you'll find the masses gathered at the Icom and Yaesu booths drooling over their latest offerings. But you won't find the the Big Guns there. They are over at the Alpha booth, not drooling but inquiring on the status of their order.

For the true Big Guns, the Hamvention proper isn't what they come for. The Big Gun Hamvention occurs after hours at the various hospitality suites, formal and impromptu, at the hotels downtown. Here, you rub elbows with fellow Big Guns, swap war stories and lies, and in general reaffirm each other's Big Gun status. 

Occasionally, a Little Pistol manages to sneak into these proceedings incognito. Those who remain undetected and not thrown out often refuse to speak of what they witness, whether out of fear or envy is difficult to discern. But it often results in the Little Pistol embarking on the path to Big Gunnery.

The Lost Island DX Society will be attending Dayton this year, but we will remain anonymous in order to not attract attention and elicit undue admiration or admonition. If you are there, just look around and I'm sure you'll spot some prime candidates who might be LIDS. But we'll never tell if they are or not.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Happy Cinco de Mayo to our XE Friends

The calendar says today is Cinco de Mayo. The Big Gun Spanish dictionary doesn't contain much beyond Cinco-Nueve, which means 5-9 (fi-ni, for us Big Guns. Maybe it should be Cinc-Neuv in Big Gun-ese). So Cinco de Mayo must be the fifth of mayonnaise. Hopefully that's real mayonnaise and not that Miracle Whip crap. With my limited Spanish, I don't know what the fifth of mayonnaise means. But I wish all my XE brethren a Happy Cinco de Mayo. Maybe I'll head down to the local Mexican restaurant tonight and order dos cervesas in their honor. In the meantime, we'll be checking Uno Sesenta listening for the DX. We'll be the loud one.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Cousin QRM - Big Gun Tips #1

Some of you may be familiar with a column in a prestigious magazine written by Uncle DX. Uncle and I are distant relatives. But every family has a black sheep, and I guess I'm it, which is why Uncle and I rarely talk. But I have been asked to write about Big Gun tips that Uncle would never publish. So from time to time, I'll share my wisdom here on the Fi-Ni Report.


Big Gun Tip #1 - if more is good, even more is better. This applies not only to RF power, antennas, towers and lap dances, but also extends to other things that make your signal sound like a Big Gun. Top of the list has to be bandwidth. Those Exalted Single Sideband (ESSB) boys got it right here. Nothing says Big Gun like an SSB signal that is 6-8 kHz wide.  You need that wide audio response to let your melodious oratory roll, especially when you initiate a rag chew with a rare DX station during the middle of his pileup. You want everyone to enjoy your report to the DX that he's a good 58 today and was only 56 when you worked him yesterday.


Not everyone goes for the AM on SSB audio sound. Sometimes conditions are poor and you need some extra punch to break through the QRN (your Big Gun signal IS loud enough to break through the QRM, right?) . That's where compression, or audio processing, come into play. All HF radio have it now, so use it. Again, if more is good, even more is better.  Vince Lombardi expected his players to give 110%, there's no reason your modulation should be any less. With a little practice and adjustment, you can do a pretty good Dearth Vader impression, too.


Now, the more is good, even more is better philosophy isn't restricted to SSB. The cw brethren can also benefit from its application as well. First off is your keyer weighting. Changing from the standard 3:1 weighting can give your fist a distinctive sound that will make it stand out in a pileup. If you are careful you can emulate a bug fist. With care, you can get used to sending with a weighting of as little as 1.2:1, which sounds pretty much like a machine gun with a stutter, i.e. about 80% of all bug operators.  Advanced operators can even replicate the Lake Erie swing, but that takes quite a bit of practice. So what if other stations are constantly asking for repeats. The point is they hear you.


Sometimes during a cw contest the neighborhood gets a tad crowded. Even those 250 Hz filters aren't sufficient to keep the next door Big Gun from making your AGC thump. If you're fortunate enough to have a rig with adjustable keying rise time, you can use it to your advantage. Reduce the rise time as much as possible. A shorter rise time means a wider keying bandwidth (and you thought I was going against the more is good, even more is better philosophy). Those key clicks will help nudge your frequency neighbors up and down a  bit in order to give you some more elbow room. If their receiver can't handle the awesome power of your signal, it's not your fault.


Well, that's enough advice for today for you Big Guns. If any readers find my advice helpful, it is completely unintentional. If you like my advice, I'll be back. If not, I'll be back more often.


73, Cousin QRM

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Vice President Confuses Pigs and Hams

Vice President Biden warned the public on Thursday to be wary of ham radio operators in order to avoid the swine flu. In comments on the recent swine flu outbreak, Biden said "I wouldn't go anywhere in confined places now. It's that you're in a confined aircraft. When one person sneezes, it goes all the way through the aircraft. I'd also stay away from those ham radio operators just to be safe, but that's just me." Administration officials promise to release what the vice president meant to say once they figure it out.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Sun Hits 100 Year Low in Activity

Scientists are increasingly puzzled and worried as the sun continues to remain increasingly quiet.  Solar wind has hit a 50-year low and sunspot activity is at a 100-year low.  While the long term trends are downward, predictions are difficult. However, recent average daily sunspot numbers show a precipitous drop beginning in 2004 that has continued to the present. The average daily sunspot number for 2004 was 68.6, but dropped to a staggering 4.7 for 2008.


While many experts claim this is an extended low at the bottom of a normal or slightly longer than usual 11-year sunspot cycle, others are not so sure. In the United States, congressional Democrats are threatening hearings on the current state of sunspots, noting that the precipitous drop in sunspot activity occurred during the second Bush administration.  While avoiding direct accusations, staffers note that the timing is suspicious and some members are calling for investigations to identify responsible administration officials. When asked about the sunspot crisis, anonymous Obama administration officials refused comment but noted that they had inherited the problem from the previous administration who had eight years to tackle the problem and did nothing. Upon learning that the sunspot deficit posed no threat to the operation of Blackberries or Twitter, the anonymous official failed to understand the reason for concern.


Meanwhile global warming advocates are working furiously to formulate a theory linking man-made greenhouse gases and the drop in sunspot activity. Although there is no known mechanism for greenhouse gases trapped in earth's atmosphere to influence the much larger and distant sun, activists are certain there must be a connection and have already begun developing a new movie warning of the dangers. Former vice president Al Gore is expected to narrate.


Not all researchers find the sun's lack of activity unusual or alarming. Independent researcher, philosopher, and patchouli merchant Harry "Sunshine" Morgan has an alternative theory.


"Our sun is a rather young star in astronomical terms, just an adolescent, really. Teenagers get acne as part of their growing up. So maybe sunspots are like solar zits. Now our sun is growing older and getting out of that awkward teenage phase, so the zits on his face are clearing up. We shouldn't be worried about the sunspots disappearing, we should be happy. Our sun is becoming a man!"