Monday, July 26, 2010


At least once a year, some DXer or contester re-starts the perennial question of why the signal report exchanged by every DXpedtion or in every contest is always 59. This is a dangerous road of inquiry, for implicit in the question is the expectation that logic and reason should be the basis of amateur radio activities. When it comes to contesting and DXing, logic and reason are qualities rarely in evidence. Tradition is the triumphant rule in most matters, as it is here. All signal reports are 59 because of tradition. But not the tradition which you might think.

Most contesters and DXers assume the 59 signal report is merely a shorthand way of exchanging the required information without having to think . After all, signal reports are subjective, much like interpretations of the speed limit signs on the highway. Readability 5, perfectly readable. Well, that is when the splatter and QRM of the guy running 1.25 kHz above you isn't wiping you out. Signal strength, 9, very strong signal. On a quiet band, if I had a six element monobander at 100' pointing your way, I'm sure you would be very strong.

But the common 59 signal report we exchange today does not derive from the oft quoted RST system of signal reports. To understand why, and where, we got the 59 exchange from, we must dig back into the very earliest days of amateur radio.

It was 1929 and amateurs radio operators were pushing the boundaries of radio technology and DXing. A group of British amateurs decided to sponsor a test to see which amateur stations could work the farthest and most DX. Today, we would call this a DX contest, but this was before such organized events were conceived.

The British group decided that to prove a valid contact had been made, they would assign each station participating in the test a unique number that they would exchange with each station they contacted, which would then be reported to validate the contact.

A Welsh amateur radio operator by the name of Ergryad ap Tywysog was very keen on proving his station was the best in the British Isles. Ergryad has assembled a monstrous AM station that put out a dominant signal, so he jumped into the test full bore.

Unfortunately, the organizers of the DX test had done a good job of publicizing the event, but had failed to adequately communicate the need to obtain a unique number for each station. Thus, there was some chaos on how the test was supposed to work. Ergryad understood the rules and had gotten his unique identifier number. But Ergryad had a bad habit of randomly switching between speaking English and Welsh, and often mixed the two, which made him difficult to understand. During the test, Ergryad, who had been assigned the number 253, would give his exchange as, "Fi nifer two-fi-tree." In Welsh, "Fi nifer" means "my number".

Needless to say, not many other radio amateurs of the day understood or spoke Welsh. Ergryad's signal was so strong though, he worked almost all the stations on the air, both in Europe and in North America. The other amateurs, many not knowing how the DX test was supposed to work, assumed that Ergryad was saying "Five-Nine Two-Five-Three" just with a thick Welsh accent, and assumed that the five-nine was a signal report and the two-five-three was a serial number. So they quickly adopted the format and began making DX contacts.

After the DX test ended, the sponsoring group realized what had happened. Rather than try and correct the very widespread misunderstanding, they adopted the new format. It proved so popular, that other groups began to adopt it for tests they sponsored. By the time the concept of organizing a formal radio contest developed, the Five-Nine 'signal report' was ingrained among DXers. It wasn't until the mid- to late-60's that high speed phone operators began to realize that careful enunciation was slowing down their rates and hurting them competitively and they developed the technique of giving the signal report as "Fi-Ni", which is actually very close to Ergryad's original exchange. It also laid the foundation for the future founding of the Lost Island DX Society and it's Fi-Ni Report.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Keeping Us Straight

It's 0001Z Monday morning. Around the world, contesters are rejoicing in joy or sighing in relief as they end another weekend of contesting. The contest is over.

But not for a dedicated group amateurs intent on insuring all participants in the contest played fair. The Contest Score Investigators (CSI) are gearing up to investigate evidence of cheating by radio-sport competitors. They will spend countless hours in the succeeding weeks, perhaps months, scouring logs of cluster spots, and audio recordings looking for evidence of rule infractions, whether those of the station's country radio rules or those of the contest sponsor's. This dedicated team committed to the strict rule of law, will continue even after the official results of the contest have been release, meaning their work may go on for more than a year. In contests where competitor's logs are released publicly, the CSI team will dissect the individual logs of competitors suspected of cheating, looking for evidence. Instead of spending hours in front of a radio, the CSI team members spends them in front of a computer screen, running statistical analyses and looking for patterns of suspicious behavior in IP trace routes.

The CSI are not paid by the hour, administrative lackeys, tiny cogs in the giant machinery of justice. No, their mission is entirely self-appointed. No contest sponsor asks for their assistance policing the sport of radio contesting. Their findings carry no weight, except in the court of public opinion, usually on the CQ-Contest reflector. Are their findings anticipated for their insight? Hardly. Almost every report from a CSI analysis results in additional, conflicting analysis from other CSIs. Rarely is a consensus reached or action taken as a result of any CSI analysis. Discussions, or arguments, about them rage for months after the contest or even the final results. While the CSI analysts slice and dice the data from the last big contest, the competitors have moved on and operated several more. Meaning that the CSI's work will never be done.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Spies Among Us

No, not those silly undercover UA sleepers! Someone has been secretly recording some of the LIDS it seems. The pictures are a little fuzzy, but that just might be Cousin QRM in the leopard skin skirt. Don't ask, we won't tell. Keep an eye out for this K3NG character.