DXCC: Done!

DXCC Award for KD4C
DXCC Award for KD4C – Confirmed contacts with 100 Countries

I didn’t make my original goal of DXCC by the end of 2020. Lots of reasons, none of which are important now. But another 5 months and it’s done.

Honestly, it’s a pretty big feat at solar minimum and wouldn’t have been possible without FT4/8 modes (which represent ~90% of my contacts). Also, it would have been much harder without LOTW, as all my 100 contacts were confirmed via LOTW. I suppose I could have waited another who knows how many months for paper QSL cards, but for this I was impatient. I actually had to work 108 countries to get 100 stations that were on LOTW, so I guess I’m on my way to the honor roll – it’s doubtful that I will get there but who knows. My only regret is that I’m sure that in the ’80s I worked at least 3-4 countries that no longer exist (East Germany, Yugoslavia, etc.) and I’d love to have those cards back.

Here’s to the next 100!

The Geratol Net

Back in the early days of my ham experience, just after I successfully upgraded to Extra in the fall of 1978, I was taking advantage of my new Extra class phone band privileges on 75M and happened across an interesting group of people that referred to themselves as the Geratol Net (notice the distinct spelling that differentiates from the legendary consumer dietary supplement, although I’m sure there was some overlap given the demographics of the people on the net).

The purpose of the Geratol Net was to aid members in obtaining an elusive endorsement that at one time was provided by the awards department of the ARRL – “Worked All States with Two-Letter callsigns in the Extra Class portion of 75 Meters” – Otherwise known as the Geratol Award, or as they call it, the “Unbelievable Operating Achievement Award“.

Being young and otherwise nocturnal, I had no problem dedicating lots of weekend hours late at night on the Geratol Net trying to obtain this elusive award. As you may or may not know, WAS on 75M phone is not an easy task, given the particulars of propagation. Couple that with finding stations in all those states that have 1×2 or 2×1 callsigns that are crazy dedicated enough to stay up half the hours of the evening pursuing the prize (or enabling those that desire it!). But such was my pursuit.

The net is structured in such a way as you can request certain needed states (I think it was up to 3 a night) and if stations in those states are present in the net, you will be given a (relatively) clear frequency to attempt to call them. If you’re both successful in giving and receiving reports (as refereed by the NCS) then a QSO is declared and QSL cards eventually pass in the night to arrive at the doors of both happy operators. Most nights there would be anywhere from 15-25 stations, so you might end up lucky or (more often than not) just there to help other stations out, since no one from your need list was checked in.

Since I was in Tennessee, I was sought after early on, mostly by western stations, but after awhile of me being a regular, Tennessee was no longer that needed. Working the close-in stations on 75M phone was relatively easy, even for a modest station running barefoot, but stations in the Northeast and Northwest were a bit elusive given 75M propagation and the distances involved. Most everyone on the net was concerned about Alaska and Hawaii and, while they were tough, I don’t remember them as being the most elusive. I expect the Alaska and Hawaii stations that were on the net had a) a bit better antenna system, and b) saintly patience, which was to our benefit.

Speaking of better antennas, I do remember the quest for a better 75M antenna as taking up quite a bit of time. Different orientations of dipoles, along with ground-mounted verticals all were in the mix to be tried if there was a needed station that was deep in the noise. But I never exceeded the barefoot power level of my modest Kenwood TS-520S.

As I recall, it took just under a year to find the 50 elusive stations, receive the needed QSL cards (through the snail mail!), verify everything, pack it all up and send it to Newington with the award application. Then to wait for the soon-to-be-cherished wallpaper to arrive…

Geratol WAS
My cherished WAS with the numbered Geratol Endorsement – #348

Arrive it did, and I was never so happy to put it in one of those cheap document frames and on the wall, staring at the cherished endorsement and knowing that I was #348 of a very select group.

Fast forward oh so many years, the vast majority of which I had no 75M phone capability, so therefore unaware of the fate of the Geratol Net, when I received an email requesting that I try to check in soon. Wait, it was still going after all these years? After the shift in 75M extra bandplan where the hallowed 3.787MHz was no longer an Extra-only allocation? Quick – to this new thing called the internet! A little searching and I found that the Geratol Net has a home on the internet, and that someone has obtained the numbered list of awards from ARRL. The awards department no longer issues the endorsement on a paper WAS certificate, so it’s no longer a League matter, but these guys have kept up the tradition and are issuing their own award. The site also had some notices that some of the notable calls from when I was hunting have gone SK, but the Geratol Net lives on. I hope to be a part of it again, just after I can start wrestling with a suitable 75M antenna!

Starting Over On DXCC

Update as of May 2021: DONE!

DXCC

I was close to DXCC in 1982. Back in the days of paper logs, QSL Cards, the DX “Buro” (QSL Bureau), and Cycle 21, it was fairly easy for a high school kid to work lots of countries on 15 and 10 meters. Having a 3 element beam at 55′ didn’t hurt either. But that was then. After being mostly inactive on HF for 20 years, moving 3 times, and leaving behind my log and QSL Cards, there’s no way to get back to where I was on the quest for DXCC.

So I’m starting over.

Now we have FT-8 and LOTW, so it’s a lot easier to make (and confirm) those weak signal contacts. In a little over 18 months, I’m up to 70 countries. Probably 15 or so behind where I was back then. Of course there’s no real way to know if I had something then that is now unobtainable (pretty sure I had East Germany and Yugoslavia confirmed), but I’m resigned to never being on top of the honor roll. I’d just like to have the milestone checked and maybe the wallpaper…

Add Weather to Your Ham Clock

In my copious free time, I’ve been working on what to do with my empty Line 2 from clock ver 4.2.  I went looking for online weather information that I could scrape and display, and there are a few different sources.  I picked one (the price was right) but they are all fairly similar so this should be adaptable to the others if you want to play around.

Here’s what my display looks like now:

Clock with Weather

As with V4.2, the time updates once per day with the online NTP pool.  The weather info is refreshed and displayed every 10 minutes (user changeable, but the free service is limited in the number of inquiries per day.

Here’s what you have to do to sign up for the free weather info:

  1. Go to https://openweathermap.org/api  and click “Please sign up”.  You’ll have to enter and verify your email.
  2. After that, it should display your personal API key (a 32 character string) – save this key, you will need it.
  3. Once you open up the V4.3 code (attached), there will be a place in the customization header to paste the key.
  4. Don’t give out your API key – if your key exceeds the free lookup limit, they will shut off your access.

There’s one other library that is needed in 4.3 to parse the JSON data from the weather API:

  1. Inside the IDE, select “Tools -> Manage Libraries”
  2. In the search box, type “ArduinoJson” ** Make sure you select the Highest Version 5 (5.13.5) in the pick list, then Install.  If you mistakenly select Version 6.X.X, your sketch won’t compile!)
Arduino JSON Lib Install

There’s a customization for weather location as well.  It’s set to Richardson, but if you want to change it, openweathermap.org has a download of thousands of city ID codes that you can substitute in (I’ve put the code for plano in a comment line for those of you up north).  If you don’t want to download the list, ask me and I’ll find your city code if it’s available.

If you look at the raw JSON data, there’s lots of other information that could be extracted and displayed if you want to rearrange the display and dive into the JSON parsing logic.  There’s also a separate forecast string available.

Raw:{"coord":{"lon":-96.73,"lat":32.95},"weather":[{"id":804,"main":"Clouds","description":"overcast clouds","icon":"04d"}],"base":"stations","main":{"temp":44.89,"feels_like":41.02,"temp_min":42.8,"temp_max":46.99,"pressure":1018,"humidity":87},"visibility":16093,"wind":{"speed":3.36,"deg":40},"clouds":{"all":90},"dt":1580421184,"sys":{"type":1,"id":4066,"country":"US","sunrise":1580390620,"sunset":1580428588},"timezone":-21600,"id":4722625,"name":"Richardson","cod":200}

Other than the weather inclusion, I’ve done some work for power management.  This version shuts off the WiFi connection when not in use and adds a couple of other delay tweaks and uses about 65% of the current of Version 4.2.  Mine draws around 80mA now.  There may be some more tweaks to the backlight to cut the draw down further in the future.

That’s it for now, until I get my RTC chip in from China and can play with keeping the clock going through power outages.

Give it a try and let me know if you have questions.

Build Your Own Ham Clock

(or How I learned to love Arduino projects)

Recently, several of us in the Richardson Wireless Klub completed a small project session led by Brady Pamplin W5LH and Mike Jahrig KG5P to create a very inexpensive Wi-Fi-connected clock based on easy-to-use (and to learn) Arduino microcontroller and a multiline LCD display (see Figure 1).  For someone that has had no experience with these types of components, I was intrigued and wanted to learn what these types of components are good for and how easy or hard it would be.  I was very pleasantly surprised!

Arduino Ham Clock
Arduino-based Wi-Fi-connected Ham Clock Project

What’s an Arduino?

The Arduino is a small single-board microcontroller (processor and basic interfaces).  There are several versions but all are easy to use and have become very popular with hobbyists and in educational uses. The project started in Italy (“Arduino” was the name of the bar where the team met) to create low-cost and easy-to-use devices that can easily interact with the environment using sensors and actuators.  A very large number of types of devices are now available and are being used in a huge number of very creative ways.  You can find several types of devices in the hobbyist section at places like MicroCenter, but your best bet is obtaining parts on eBay directly from China, where they are much cheaper but take awhile to arrive.

The basic parts that we used for the clock were a WeMos D1 Mini (around $3.50) and a 4 row x 20 character LCD display (around $7).  Brady even whipped up some 3D printed cases.  The microcontroller is powered by a micro-USB port (think phone charger) and in addition to the built-in input/output interfaces, has built-in Wi-Fi, so it’s very easy to build things without having to figure out the basics.

For our clock, the hook-up is literally 4 wires between the two components: Power (5VDC) from the controller board to the LCD display, and a serial interface (data/clock) to the display’s interface module.  Even if you didn’t want to dive into how all this works, you could easily build one.  But you would be missing most of the fun.

It’s important to note the difference between the Arduino and a Raspberry Pi.  Although easy to confuse, they are actually quite different.  The Pi is a very small computer – it has an operating system, common human interfaces like a keyboard and display, and it can do lots of things at the same time.  The Arduino, however, being a microcontroller, is designed to do only one thing at a time, and does it repetitively until instructed otherwise.

The Magic Is In the Code

The Arduino is programmed in a Python-esque language that hides the C++ that lies below.  Have I scared you off yet?  Don’t be.  It’s actually very easy to pick up.  I’ve done a fair amount of coding but it’s mostly been web and data applications, where most of the low-level stuff (like writing to the screen) was done for you, which leaves you to focus on the logic.  This is actually very similar.  There is an Integrated Development Environment (IDE) for the controller which runs on your PC and is where you create, compile and load the code that the controller executes.  You plug the controller into your PC with a USB cable, and the USB supplies power to the controller. There are lots of libraries available that do most of the heavy lifting (the internet is your friend for all kinds of examples), and you are left to stitch them all together in a “sketch” to do what you want.

Our class started by assembling the hardware (again, easy) and then loading a very basic routine that setup the controller’s Wi-Fi and then went to the internet for the time (using the NTP pools) then just wrote that to the display.  This approach leaves a lot to be desired, and several people in the class noted the problems almost immediately:  Too much load on the NTP servers.  No connection, no time.  No provision for daylight saving time.  Several of us left to immediately do what we hams do – tinker, poke around, and see what we can improve!  I found a better time library that was a much better fit for what we were trying to build, and after a couple of different late night software iterations, the group now has a clock that sets the time once, calculates local time for your time zone, corrects for daylight saving time, and synchronizes once per day to the internet to keep your time accurate – all for the cost of a decent lunch.  And in the process, I learned a bunch about microcontrollers, how to code them, and how to hook things up to them.  I now have a small but growing list of things that I would like to play around with, and requests are coming in on additional things that could be added to the clock project (like a battery-backed real-time clock circuit that would maintain time even if powered off or not connected to the internet – I’ve already got the $1.50 part on order from China…).  Brady is already looking for other fun things to do in conjunction with RWK and/or the Dallas Makerspace where he teaches.

If all you want is a clock, then go buy a clock. But if you want to learn and have a bit of fun and end up with a pretty cool “look, I made that” clock, then this might be the project for you too!

Finished Ham Clock
Finished Ham Clock in its cool 3D-printed Case
(this article was written for the Feb 2020 issue of the Richardson Wireless Klub newsletter, The Chawed Rag)

KD4C Is On The Air

I discovered Ham Radio in 1977 when I was a freshman in High School. I had bugged my Dad for a CB Radio during the CB/trucker craze in 1976 (anyone remember Convoy?), but the actual product (a Midland portable) left a lot to be desired. Mostly squeals and squawks and very little of interest from a boy’s bedroom. So my Dad signed us up for a Novice class, put on by the local radio club, and we learned CW, regs, and a little radio theory. Being young, I picked up the code faster than he did, but ultimately we were both licensed as novices, me as WD4EJO.

I was very fortunate that my Dad had a background in electronics and had the means to get us a new radio – a Kenwood TS-520S (I loved that radio!). Over the next few years, we ended up with a great station and a modest tower with a 3 element triband beam (a used Mosley TA-33 that was shipped from New York). It was a bitch to assemble and put up, but I worked the world on that antenna.

As far as ham activities, I’d done more than most at that age. I was involved in my local club ((RACK – W4BBB – the same club that offered the license classes) and served as club secretary, newsletter editor, and on the hamfest committee. I got to operate a bunch, earn my Worked All States (in the Extra class portion of 75 meters! – the Geratol Net WAS #348), work a lot of DX during the great Cycle 21 peak, build a lot of neat things, work field days and fox hunts, and me and a fellow ham friend even modified an old Western Union FAX machine to send radiograms over HF. I did a lot of club radio-related activities, including helping to build a 2M repeater in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains – nice view at the top of that tower (elev. 2,970 ft.)! I also experimented a lot, built a lot of things, and generally did what hams do – learn and have fun with radios and electronics.

I also got involved with computers in high school (this was 1977) and bought a Radio Shack TRS-80. I had a lot of fun with the computer and programming as well, and even then was looking for a way to combine radios and computers – it’s a lot easier now, but then it was very clunky. I got to experiment with lots of what was then cutting edge and the predecessor to today’s personal computer. It seemed inevitable that I went to college and majored in Electrical Engineering, something that would allow me to combine my love of radio and computers.

After college, I moved to Texas to work in the defense industry. Ironically, although my day job involved lots of radio and computer-related technology, I didn’t get to do much in the way of ham radio. I was busy, traveled a bunch for work, and lived in an apartment that limited my antenna farm severely. I spent several years not making a single contact and never really got involved in the local clubs. But the itch was still there, just under the surface. I bought a radio and would tune and listen, but fear of interference of the neighbor’s stereo and telephones kept me off the air.

Fast forward to recent times. I’ve traded an inner-city condo for a suburban house. One day I was driving down a main thoroughfare close to my house and saw a sign that was advertising ham radio exams by the local club. I had forgotten that Richardson (home of Collins Radio) had a great radio club, and now I was seeing the evidence. I went home and looked up the club and went to the next meeting. As hams do most everywhere, the members welcomed me with open arms, and I’ve gotten involved in lots of club activities. I also unpacked most all of my ham gear, got an antenna on the roof, and got a station back on the air. I discovered this new FT-8 mode that makes the most of the crappy sunspot cycle that we are in, and have had fun working bunches of local and DX stations on the newest mode. I’m also back to building stuff, even if it’s nothing more than interfaces between radios and Raspberry Pi computers. Old habits are hard to break.

I can’t wait to find out what happens next!