Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Handiham World for 29 October 2008

Welcome to Handiham World!

Pat, WA0TDA, with headset microphone
Image: Pat takes part in a SKYPE audio conference as we move forward on the Handiham Remote Base project.

It's time for another Handiham remote base update! As our regular readers and listeners know, the remote base HF station is up and running in beta test mode. We remain on schedule to begin regular member access in early 2009.

For those of you just learning about this station for the first time, it consists of a Kenwood TS-480SAT, an LDG AT-100 automatic antenna tuner that activates as soon as it senses RF, a G5RV wire antenna, and a Lenovo computer running Windows Vista. The interface to the rig is via a West Mountain Radio RigBlaster.

The station is strategically located in the center of the North American continent at Camp Courage North, where we run our annual Handiham Minnesota Radio Camp. The location is exceptionally RF-quiet, as all power lines in the area are underground. The camp's high-speed Internet connection is more than adequate for all of our control and audio needs.

Last Friday, Handiham volunteers Lyle, K0LR, and Joe, N3AIN, joined me in a conference call with Stan, W4MQ, author of the rig control software that we have installed at the remote base. The purpose of the conference was to address a few small changes to the W4MQ remote base software that will allow easier access by blind users running screenreading software.

Joe, N3AIN, is a blind beta tester who has an excellent understanding of the JAWS screenreader, so his input on how the software interface appears via screenreader access is vital. Some of you will remember that Joe also owns a Kenwood TS-480 himself, and has produced our TS-480 audio tutorials.

Lyle, K0LR, has taken the reins of this project and has installed the station hardware and software. He has been in charge of setting up usernames and passwords for beta testers, and checks the station status daily.

Stan, W4MQ, has kindly taken the time to listen to our comments and will be helping us out in the coming month with some tweaks to the W4MQ software.

The conference took about an hour. We will keep you posted on our progress, but I wanted to make sure you know that we are working for you behind the scenes. Isn't it great when hams get together to help other hams on projects like this one?

It makes me feel good about ham radio! For your Handiham World, I'm...

Patrick Tice, WA0TDA
Courage Center Handiham Manager

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Handiham World for 22 October 2008

Welcome to Handiham World!

Well, well. Here we are listening to the weather forecast and thinking (at least here in Minnesota, in the center of North America) that there is probably no way to fool ourselves into thinking that winter won't arrive as usual this year. It can, and it will.

I'm starting to think about what I call my "Alternate Plan B". Sure it's a little redundant, but what this is all about is having a second way to do things... Namely, to stay on the air all winter in case the weather takes out my antenna. I've already followed my own advice and gotten my antennas into shape for the winter, but you never know. I've set myself up with a wire antenna and a tuner that will pretty much cover all of the HF bands that I normally use. My alternate plan B is a multiband vertical. If the wire antenna comes down in an ice storm, the vertical will remain standing -- I hope. This is just one example of building redundancy into your amateur radio station. If you are on the air long enough, chances are that you have collected more than one HF transceiver and more than one power supply. I have, and to build redundancy into my station all I have to do is flip a couple of switches to bring the spare station online in case there is some failure in my main station. The addition of the handiham remote base at Courage North adds one more way that I could get on the air if I needed to, and we remain on schedule to bring this member resource to members in early 2009. Nonetheless, the remote base suffered a failure over the past weekend, and there is no alternate plan B for that station. I suppose that is all right, since the station is not meant to be anyone's "main" station, but I imagine some members will be in situations where they have no antennas because of restrictions. For them, a second choice would be a different remote base, and the W4MQ software provides for this option, though users have to be registered and approved for the other stations, just as they have to be approved for the handiham remote base.

The concept of Alternate plan B is well known at amateur radio special events and Field Day operation. Generally Murphy will pay a visit at the least opportune times, making it necessary to switch out equipment or quickly string up another temporary antenna system. In fact, I just spoke with Dave, W0OXB, who is planning a special event station at Minnesota's Split Rock Lighthouse. The event recalls the sinking of an iron ore freighter in Lake Superior, the Edmund Fitzgerald. Because the lighthouse is located in northern Minnesota on Lake Superior, you have to have a plan! There is a rumor that the weather in northern Minnesota at the end of October isn't always the best. Keep on reading for that special event news.

For your Handiham World, I'm...

Pat Tice

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Handiham World for 15 October 2008

Welcome to Handiham World!

Under Pat's Hat

Under Pat's Hat - WA0TDA wearing two straw hats.

What's under Pat's hat today? How about: Sound off!

No, this isn't what you think it is -- it's not an editorial of some kind where I am sounding off about some contentious ham radio issue. It is about sound, specifically computer sound. Let me elaborate.

One of the things computer manufacturers and operating system designers have decided to do for us, the hapless users, is to provide us with all sorts of ways our computer systems can let us know that things are happening. I happen to run Windows Vista, but it could be some other operating system and most of the things that I say in this article will still apply. Virtually every computer made these days, unless it is for some highly specific esoteric use, has a built-in sound system. Software engineers have decided that it would be wonderful to use this sound system as a notification whenever the computer completes a specific task, such as receiving an e-mail message. In the Windows operating system "sound schemes" are a built-in feature but can be customized by the user. If, for example, I wanted the computer to make a pleasant chiming sound whenever an e-mail message came in, I could choose that feature in the sound scheme settings and henceforth every time a message came in, the chime would sound. On my computer, since I can see the screen and do not have to use screen reading software, there is also a visual notification in the system tray when an e-mail message comes in. It's a tiny little envelope. Aw, how cute!

If I want a custom sound, I can either find it somewhere on the Internet or even record my own wave file. I simply open the sound schemes settings and browse to the file I have created, which could be music or spoken word or even a synthesized sound. After that, the sound would signal me whenever the computer did whatever event triggered it.

Now, here's the thing with sound schemes. Turn them off. No, seriously, I mean it.

Unless you really have a need for your computer to signal you with specific sounds, you may find that having your computer make all of these audible signals is more trouble than it's worth. One of the things that I do with my computer is to record audio. If I am recording an audio lecture, the last thing I need is for an e-mail message to come in and have the computer alert me with a sound that interferes with my recording session. But wait, folks... that's not all! Suppose you are an amateur radio operator, using your sound card for some amateur radio purpose, such as EchoLink audio. You are talking with another station and an e-mail arrives at your computer. Ding-ding. You've got Mail. And now the other station to whom you're talking and anyone else connected to that EchoLink node also knows that you have mail. Even worse, if your computer is set to play a musical passage when the e-mail arrives, you would be transmitting music in violation of FCC rules.

Some amateur radio operators have solved this problem by having dedicated ham shack computers that only operate digital modes or EchoLink or do signal processing or what ever it is that needs to be done in the ham shack without interference from other computer duties, such as receiving e-mail. Most of us, however, ask our computers to multitask. The same computer will be used for creating documents, printing the family photos, sending and receiving e-mail, listening to streaming Internet radio, viewing online video, playing music, and yes, ham radio applications. It has become easier than ever to get confused by these multiple applications and send out unwanted audio on the air. What to do?

If you can't set up a dedicated ham shack application computer, it is possible to still tame your sound system and keep unwanted audio off the airwaves. Here are three basics that will save you some aggravation and embarrassment:

1. Go into the Windows control panel, locate the sound schemes, and select the "no sounds" option. Your computer will still be able to produce sound if you want to play a CD in it, listen to a streaming radio station, or listen to an MP3 file. The only thing that happens when you turn off the sounds in the sound scheme settings is that you won't get audible alerts when something happens, such as an e-mail message delivery. This will help you to keep these unexpected noises out of your EchoLink transmissions.

2. Consider purchasing a USB microphone headset. These handy devices can be used to bypass the sound card altogether, and you can set up EchoLink to prefer the USB headset over the sound card, keeping those other unwanted sounds completely confined to the sound card. This can be especially useful when the computer is used by a number of different family members for different purposes.

3. When it is time to operate EchoLink or digital modes with your computer, shut down other applications that may also call for the use of the sound card. That way, you will avoid conflicts and keep unwanted audio off the air.

How does it work? Well, it works great for me in my ham shack, where I have a dedicated ham radio computer that can run an EchoLink node at the same time that I am using a USB headset to communicate via Skype and the Handiham remote base station. If I wanted to, I could also watch a television program on the same computer, since the TV sound is hardware-specific to the PCI TV receiver card. Good grief! How much sound do I need? I guess the correct answer to that question is “just about as much as I need to get the job done", because I could be conceivably using all three of those sound systems on a single computer with no interference between any of them if my EchoLink node were running and at the same time I was checked into an HF net using the remote base while at the same time watching the television feed of the National Weather Service radar. Don't laugh; it could happen!

For your Handiham World, I'm...

Pat Tice

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Handiham World for 8 October 2008

Welcome to Handiham World!

Remote base update: The Kenwood software is out; W4MQ is in

Screenshot: W4MQ remote base

The Handiham Remote Base station beta testing is continuing at a good pace, and we are certainly getting educated on why it is necessary to have a testing period before going "live" as a member service!

Let's bring you up to date.

We started out in late August with the installation, taking advantage of the already-scheduled Handiham Radio Camp, when Lyle, K0LR, and I would already be at the station location Courage North. The radio, computer, and all associated equipment were funded by a generous gift from Kerry Flavours (thanks to K2OMQ for his help), and we were able to coordinate the purchase and delivery of the equipment in such a way that Lyle, K0LR, could pre-install some of the necessary software and get things working as much as possible before the trip to Courage North. Since the station would be a considerable distance from a metropolitan area, we had to made sure that we had planned for as many contingencies as possible. There isn't a Radio Shack store just down the block when you are far into the north, in Minnesota's woods and lake country! On the other hand, the location chosen for the station has the necessities that will make it work for us:

1. It is in a very quiet location, far from overhead power lines. All power lines in the area are underground. All wiring at the camp itself is underground.

2. Courage North has a T-1 Internet line, capable of high bandwidth use.

3. Courage North is the site of our Handiham Radio Camp, which allows us to use the station as a teaching tool. Since its location at camp is pretty far from the other antennas, the remote base can operate with less interference to and from the other stations at camp.

4. Tom, KB0FWQ, lives at Courage North year-round.

5. Bill, N0CIC, who helped us with the station installation, lives close by.

6. We have an excellent location for the station in the attic of the camp's dining hall, which will ultimately be the location for the entire T-1 line interface.

Since everything seemed to be coming together nicely, Lyle proceeded to introduce the radio campers to the new radio and the computer interface prior to the actual installation in the dining hall. Later on in the week, we recruited Handiham volunteer Bill, N0CIC, to help us with the installation of the G5RV antenna. The computer was set up along with the radio, rig interface, LDG tuner, and feedline with a gas-discharge lightning arrestor. Lyle had to configure the system to be able to "handshake" with the Internet system, with all that entails. Thankfully we have a static IP address with the T-1 line. And even more thankfully, Lyle understands how to make this stuff work. Our volunteers are quite simply the best!

Following Radio Camp, we entered the beta test phase. Lyle and I are able to access the station computer by remote control, making it possible to configure the software and add users, administrate computer updates, and so forth. We began with the assumption that the Kenwood rig control software would most likely serve our needs. We had tested the user interface software by Kenwood, which is called ARCP-480. It seemed to be very accessible to screen reader users and the interface was easy to understand. On the remote base control computer the Kenwood program called ARHP-10 had to be running so that users could log on.

So far, so good. We proceeded to recruit and add beta testers, and we were getting some good feedback about the station from them. Then something unexpected happened. We had 10 users and could not add an eleventh user. It turned out that the Kenwood control software running on the remote base computer would only accept a maximum of 10 users, something that did not appear to be documented anywhere in the help file. An e-mail exchange with Kenwood confirmed the limitation. Clearly, this software would not serve as our final installation, because we could not confine the user base to only 10!

Fortunately, Stan, W4MQ, has written some excellent rig control software for remote base use. Even better, Stan's software can be configured for users with different privileges based on license class. This can help us administrate the station to stay within FCC rules, as well as helping users to stay within their license class privileges. We had to make the shift to the W4MQ software, which we did last week. Beta testers were informed of the change, and this week we have posted some new instructions on the handiham members only website under the remote base link.

We will be refining these pages as time goes on, but handiham members are encouraged to go ahead and take a look at the remote base pages and download the software so that they will be ready when we get out of beta test phase. In the meantime, if you want to take a look at Google Earth and see exactly where the station is located, go to our website for a link to the Google Earth location.

You must have Google Earth installed on your computer for this file to work.

I know this whole business of a remote base controlled by the Internet sounds complicated and confusing to some of you, but we are working hard to get the bugs out of the system and make it more user-friendly. I hope that by early 2009 we will be able to have the station available in several different ways for members to enjoy. Thanks to our donors, who support the work that we do, our volunteers whose patience and dedication to helping handiham members get on the air to make the program work, and to our members who continue to amaze me with their kindness and willingness to help us in every way possible.

Patrick Tice, WA0TDA
Handiham Manager

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Handiham World for 1 October 2008

Welcome to Handiham World!

Blank Sun continues - "Blankest sun of the space age" - frustrates ham radio operators

Blank Sun

Image credit: SOHO/MDI

After a brief "tease" of a small sunspot appearance last week, the sun is once again completely blank as we end the month of September. Ham radio operators around the world have eagerly anticipated the start of the next solar cycle after what has seemed like a really, really long solar minimum. There was hope aplenty back on 4 January 2008, when the first sunspot of new cycle 24 appeared.

Although seasoned radio operators will know all of this, a visit to Wikipedia gives the new ham some background on why the 11 year solar cycle is important to amateur radio:

"Solar flares also create a wide spectrum of radio noise; at VHF (and under unusual conditions at HF) this noise may interfere directly with a wanted signal. The frequency with which a radio operator experiences solar flare effects will vary with the approximately 11-year sunspot cycle; more effects occur during solar maximum (when flare occurrence is high) than during solar minimum (when flare occurrence is very low). A radio operator can experience great difficulty in transmitting or receiving signals during solar flares due to more noise and different propagation patterns. However, sunspots can greatly increase the distances achieved on certain bands, and so are useful to radio amateurs. This is because the sunspots strengthens the ionosphere, and cause less radio waves to pass through and therefore increases propagation."

As we can see from the preceding quote, the appearance of more sunspots and the buildup of solar flare activity go hand in hand. While this may seem like a mixed blessing to a ham radio newbie who has never experienced a solar maximum, those of us who have operated through one will never forget the extraordinary benefits:

The 10 meter band comes alive, making it possible to work worldwide DX with low power, sometimes only a few Watts and very simple antennas.

The other high frequency bands are open, too, sometimes into the evening. 15 meters is a joy, because there is plenty of spectrum and a great north-south DX path. We could even start using 17 meters again, reviving the non-net Handiham get-together started during the last solar maximum by Alan Davis, K2WS, who has a big signal from Long Island.

And because there is more usable spectrum during solar maximum, some of the DX pressure comes off the often-crowded 20 meter band. 75 and 40 meters remain useful throughout the solar cycle, but some operators who usually hang out on those bands will move up in frequency to 20, 17, 15, 12, and 10 meter bands. There may even be somewhat of a migration from two meters and the EchoLink system as hams rush to get on the world-wide DX bands.

That is the kind of excitement and fun a solar maximum can deliver. So if you are new ham wondering what the old timers are waiting for with long faces while we experience a blank sun, now you know! There will never be a better time to take on challenges like WAS (Worked All States), DXCC, and multiband DXCC. C'mon sun!

Update! NASA Science News for September 30, 2008 reported that astronomers who count sunspots have announced that 2008 has become the "blankest year" of the Space Age. Sunspot counts are at a 50-year low, signifying a deep minimum in the 11-year cycle of solar activity.