The ARRL International DX CW and the Conundrum of the Three Tees

After two months (my last contest had been the “RAC Winter Day” in mid-December) I returned to the 30-35 (sometimes even 40) wpm craze that, these days, is a DX CW contest: over the weekend I participated in the “ARRL International DX CW”.

Operating S&P, with the ICOM 703 outputting 5 Watts into an end-fed wire up a maple tree, I was able to log 145 DX contacts and collect 84 multipliers. This was a few more than the 117 QSOs I logged in 2016 for a respectable 3rd. place among 11 QRP Canadian stations.

Sending was via the Bencher BY2 paddle with which – if needed and even at 30 wpm – I can correct an error in the reception of my callsign or perhaps send and extra “TU” – even a “73” – or just a quick “ee” to those who struggle with my QRP signal.

A big surprise was to be able to log stations in all 5 HF bands (10m-80m). Under current propagation conditions I was expecting the 10m band to remain completely closed and the 15m band to be very poor. Instead, the 15m band remained opened from mid-morning to mid-afternoon, and a several PY stations answered my QRP call in the 10m band. 8P in the 80m band was a bonus. Also a new DXCC (V3) found its way into my logs (124 DXCC entities worked with 108 confirmed in LoTW).

As part of the contest exchange all DX stations were sending their PWR as the number of Watts output by their transmitters. Most were using the usual abbreviations, but one station insisted in sending the PWR in the form of three Tees: “TTT” (the abbreviation for “000”). I listen with intent and it was definitely “TTT”. Was it an unusual abbreviation for “1000” or perhaps a long “E” for “E00” instead of “500”? Or had this station really found a way for sending electro-magnetic waves into the ionosphere using zero output power? Likely, with no transmitter at all, which would revolutionize not only Amateur-Radio but all Thermodynamics as we know it… And if so – and this is the big conundrum – why send three “T’s” when a single one would have sufficed…?

bencher

Spotted in Antarctica at the Bottom of the Solar Cycle – With 5W and a Wire Antenna

Currently, HF propagation has been poor for frequencies above the 20m band. However, during the last two days the 17m band has showed openings to Europe and the Caribbean, allowing for a few  JT65 QSOs with DX stations in those locations.

However, the most notable finding was that the 5-Watt JT65 signal output by the ICOM 703 and broadcasted by a vertical end-fed wire antenna could be heard in Antarctica (abt 14K Km) at the DP1POL Neumeyer III station on the Ekström Ice Shelf:

untitled3

From Ottawa, my QRP signal had reached Antarctica before (also in the 17m band): on December 21, 2014, a CW QSO (later confirmed in LoTW) was completed with callsign RI1ANR in the Novolazarevskaya Station, Queen Maud Land, Antarctica. However this was during a period of significant better HF propagation. Under current conditions, the spotting by DP1POL in PSKreporter (https://pskreporter.info/pskmap.html), even if at -23db (I have had QSOs confirmed with reports as low as -27db), came quite as a surprise.

 

Morse Code and Alzheimer – A Hint for a Proposal

A recent article in PNAS by a team of scientists from Milan and Bolzano, Italy, adds to the growing list of scientific studies suggesting that the learning and/or knowledge of different languages may have an effect on delaying or preventing Alzheimer’s dementia (http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2017/01/241610909114.full.pdf).

Most humans learn very early in their lives that the different sounds in the language(s) they speak can be graphically recorded in the form of written characters representing sounds. The Morse code (more likely initially proposed by Alfred Weil, one or Morse’s associates) is an alternative form for representing those characters using minimal combinations of “dots” and “dashes”. Although strictly not a language per se, it is an alternative way of symbolizing the sounds in a spoken language, and learning to mentally decode it possibly involves neurological paths similar to those used in the learning of a language (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20346399/)

The learning of the Morse code has been informally invoked among the “mental exercises” that may potentially be of benefit against mental decay (https://www.duolingo.com/comment/7721790http://thechart.blogs.cnn.com/2010/09/01/brain-exercises-delay-speed-up-dementia/  [see the comments]). However, up to the present, no scientific study seems to have sought direct evidence in this regard.

Cross-sectional studies are usually prone to confounding factors. However, they can provide initial evidence pointing in the direction of associations that may well be causally linked (as shown for many factors involved in chronic ailments and most notably for smoking and cancer). Hence, perhaps a survey for the incidence and/or time of onset of Alzheimer among radio-operators able to mentally decode Morse code, as compared to the general population (or a more carefully chosen or matched control group) might provide initial unbiased evidence pointing in the direction of a beneficial effect of the code on preventing or delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

Fortunately, radio amateur operators currently conversant in the Morse code never depended on that evidence to learn it and enjoy its use. However, the possibility that its learning and use might prevent Alzheimer can be an added bonus to their enjoyment.

img_2979

Planning to Sail to (and “Activate”) New Water-Locked Islands in the Ottawa River

To avoid the “Winter Blues” I’ve been doing some “research” towards the coming sailing season. One of the activities that occupied my Summers recently was the successful “activation” of water-locked islands in the Ottawa River. This comprised sailing to the island, making a landing and operating from it with a portable radio station. In this manner, in 2015, operating from Aylmer Is. (ON-295) and later from Upper Duck Is. (ON-296), I was able to log from each the required minimum of 25 contacts, and thus successfully “qualify” them for the “Canadian Islands Activators” (CIA) Program (http://veislandactivators.blogspot.ca):

Aylmer Is. is the only island on the Ontario side in the ~20 nautical miles of navigable waters between the Deschènes Rapids and the town of Quyon. However, on the Québec side of that same portion of the river, two other water-locked islands can be found: Allen Island and Mohr Island, neither of which has up to now been “qualified” for the CIA Program. Further upriver, near Chats Fall Dam and also on the Ontario side of the river, are two more water-locked islands: Alexandra Is. and Kedey Is. However, given the shallow waters around them and the strong currents caused by the near-by dam, these may be better approached by dinghy from one of the ramps in Fitzroy Harbour. Thus, Allen Island and Mohr Island seem among the most likely destinations for some of my sailing outings this coming season.

Allen Is. (Grid. Loc.: FN15xl77) is a small, slender stretch of land 100-meter long located some 12 miles NW from Lac Deschènes Rapids, whence the name by which it is known in Ontario: “Twelve Mile Island”. Its most salient features include a solar-powered lateral red marker and a helicopter-landing pad. Given the proper weather and wind conditions it may be possible to attempt a day-sailing trip to the island, anchor on its NE side (likely with some protection for the current and prevailing winds), land somewhere on its NE shore and find a spot from where to operate portable for a few hours. Constance Bay, Basking Beach and even Pinhey Pt. are alternative near-by anchorages where to spend one or more nights swinging at the anchor, if so required.

So far so good. However, in “expeditions” like these foremost consideration should be given to the existing wildlife. In this regard, an osprey nest (Pandion haliaetus) was reported last year on top of the red lateral marker of Allen Is.: in late May 2016, a picture was posted in the WaterRangers page by Kat Kavanagh (https://app.waterrangers.ca/locations/298) (see an excerpt on the right of the attached composite):

allen-island

This nest does not seem to compromise the light atop or its solar charger. However, its fate may depend on what the Canadian Coast Guard (that still looks after all official navigation aids in the river) may decide in this regard. The osprey couple that built this net is very likely to return every season and maybe a near-by platform should be built to relocate the nest and avoid the use of the light marker by these birds.

I was hoping to be able to operate under one of the very few trees on the SE tip of the island. However, this would be about 20 meters away from the marker, which may be too close for the birds. Hence a better plan may be to operate in the open from the northern tip of the island, some 100 meters from the marker. Osprey-human encounters seem to be rare outside those created by wildlife scientists approaching these nests to closely examine them. However, there does not seem to be an established minimum distance to avoid disturbing an osprey nest. The “New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife” in its page entitled “Osprey Net Structure Placement“ (http://www.state.nj.us/dep/fgw/ensp/pdf/osprey_platform_planandmaterials.pdf) indicates that: “a safe distance from which to observe ospreys will vary depending on the area, but observers must stay beyond the distance at which the adults react.” Not interested in observing the nest and determined to avoid causing any reaction from these birds, I may also defer the landing to a later date in the season (late August or early September) after the osprey family has vacated the nest (http://www.ofnc.ca/birding/bbanestdates.html).

The light on Allen Is. is listed on the “List of Lights – Inland Waters – Ottawa River” of the Canadian Coast Guard “Notices to Mariners” (https://www.notmar.gc.ca/publications/list-livre/inlandwaters-eauxinter/i12333-en.php) as “Twelve Mile Island” light 1301.3. This light could also be radio-activated on its own right, as the ARLHS (Amateur Radio Light house Society) includes it in the “World List or Lights” (WHOL) database as “CAN 1433” (http://wlol.arlhs.com/lighthouse/CAN1433.html).

Mohr Island (Grid. Loc.: FN15WM14,), on the other hand, is a heavily forested “archipelago” comprising at least three islands (two larger and a smaller one) enclosing a cove open to the east (i.e., protected from the river current and prevailing westerlies).

mohr-island

This spot is a preferred anchorage in this portion of the river. Depending on the height of the waters, there is also a small sandy beach on the south shore of the anchorage. The main problem for activating this island (besides its ever present mosquitoes) is the distance from the marina, which for a small sailboat and depending on wind conditions, may require a 2-3 day expedition or launching from a ramp upriver. On the other hand, depending on wind direction and strength (and mosquito density – mid May to mid July being “mosquito season” in the Ottawa area) this may be a good spot for one or more starry overnights at the anchor. Here is a picture of the SE tip of the island taken from the anchorage in the early morning of August 25, 2001, during a week-long cruise up-river with a “quasi-teenager” (https://thewakesileave.wordpress.com/2015/11/11/sail-cruising-the-ottawa-river-between-lac-deschenes-and-chat-falls-in-the-early-2000s/):

100-0498-1

 

The WAS That Wasn’t, That Suddenly WAS…

This is the story of a WAS that wasn’t… until suddenly, it WAS…

ewas

After 6.000+ QSOs logged from Ontario locations, 3,000+ of which had been with stations in the US, three WAS (Worked All States) Awards had been already received:

wases

Yet, the eQSL “Mixed eWAS” Award remained elusive.

This was of little surprise because while over 50% of the QSOs had been confirmed in LoTW, only 20% had received confirmation in eQSL. The numbers of QSO’s vary with each State:

qsos-qsls

Although in eQSL nine States had only one confirmed QSO each (AK, DE, ID, MT, ND, NE, NV, OR and RI), eQSL confirmations had been received for 50 states.  Yet, eQSL considers MD and WDC as separate States, hence, it required 51 States for the completion of the eWAS. The elusive one was the State of Hawaii. Although several QSOs with Hawaii were in the logs, none had been with an eQSL member. Given current HF propagation conditions, it was highly unlikely for a QRP station operating from East Ontario with a small wire antenna to be able to make contact with a KH6 station that would also be an eQSL user. Yet this is exactly what happened: within the 2016 CQ WW CW a contact was made in the 40-meter band with KH6J (the station of the Koolau Amateur Radio Club in Kaneohe, on the NE shore of O’ahu Island). Walt AH6OZ, its trustee, kindly agree to operated the magic that turned the QSO into a confirmed eQSL. Here is his eQSL card together with the other nine unique eQSL cards that together contributed to 20% of this eWAS Award.

10-eqsl-cards

And this is how the WAS that wasn’t, suddenly WAS…

On Reaching Fifteen…

CW has long stopped being a requirement for radio amateur licensing. Yet, many still consider CW the ultimate experience in radio communications, not only because of its intrinsic superior efficiency as a mode, but also – and more important – because of the historic dimension that it adds to radio operation.

Most human adults speak at a rate up to 100-160 words per minute (wpm). And we do so mostly without noticing the words, the letters or any of their sounds. We merely operate at the level of the concepts that combinations of written symbols or spoken sounds elicit in our brains. Such level of proficiency, unless acquired early in life, takes a long time and much effort to acquire. In the same manner, those really conversant in CW also use it without noticing the words, the characters, the dashes or the dots, and merely communicate at the level of the concepts that the flow of CW elicits in their brains. Everyone learns differently and every teaching method has its followers and detractors. However, independent from the teaching method and similar to any other language, making CW transparent to the communication process is an intimate and personal endeavour: a fascinating struggle with one’s own brain taking both time and dedication.

In 2004, being able to receive CW at 5 wpm was a requirement for gaining access to the HF bands. Learning the code at the expense of the visual cortex was easy and fast and the test was passed at first try. That, of course, was a huge mistake.

It took nine years for that same brain to shake off the dots and dashes, favour instead the parietal auditory cortex and start paying more attention to the rhythms in CW: it wasn’t until September 18, 2013 that it was able to copy the W1AW Qualifying Run broadcast at 10 wpm and be rewarded with the “ARRL Certificate of Code Proficiency”.

It would then take over three more years, until December 13, 2016, for that brain to start automating reception, combine characters into words and copy the W1AW Qualifying Run at 15 wpm. The anti-climatic reward on this occasion was a small “15 WPM” sticker to be added as an endorsement to the original “ARRL Certificate of Code Proficiency”. This is, of course, totally inconsequential, but it does provide for a tangible milestone of personal achievement together with the bragging rights embodied in this article.

arrl-15-wpm-proficiency-code-certificate

However, the main reward has been to start participating in CW nets and CW contests without resorting to any decoding aid. Not the best strategy for reeling top finishing scores, but a winning one towards a feeling of communion with the Marconi operators of the wireless era and even their predecessors from the Railroad Telegraph.

Just for the sake of completion here is information on the ARRL Code Proficiency Certificate, the on the air W1AW Qualifying Run Schedule, the ARRL MP3 code practice files and the on the air W1AW code transmissions.

 

 

 

A New Kind of Seasonal Tropospheric Propagation?

 

img_5709_fotor

Meteors are known to enter the Earth atmosphere at speeds ranging from 11 km/s (6.84 miles per second) to 72 km/s (44.74 Miles per second) (http://www.amsmeteors.org/meteor-showers/meteor-faq/) and the meteor phenomena gets visible when it reaches the Thermosphere (part of which is the Ionosphere) between 80 and 120 km (50 and 75 miles) of altitude. At those altitudes meteors encounter the E layer in the Ionosphere and as they burn they leave in their path a trail of ionized particles that lingers in that state for a few seconds. These trails can be used to reflect radio waves, usually from the VHF section of the spectrum (30 to 50 MHz) (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meteor_burst_communications) to distances beyond the horizon. This is the basis for VHF long-distance “Meteor Scatter” or “Meteor Burst” communication.

The Tropospheric Scatter also permits VHF radio waves to travel beyond the curvature of the Earth as they follow it horizontally through the upper layers of the Troposphere, 7 to 20 km (4 to 12 miles) above sea level (http://www.windows2universe.org/earth/Atmosphere/troposphere.html)

How would a “meteor” weighing 353,000 tons behave while travelling through the lower levels of the Troposphere (at least in part) at speeds at least 100 times faster than those usually attained by its spatial siblings? And what would its consequences (and opportunities…) be for radio-wave communications?

The speed of Santa’s sleigh in Christmas Night has been estimated between 680 miles per second (http://www.daclarke.org/Humour/santa.html) and 1800 miles per second (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/topics/christmas/8188997/The-science-of-Christmas-Santa-Claus-his-sleigh-and-presents.html). Its mass clearly must decrease as the night proceeds, but at the onset it has been estimated at the above figure of 353,000 tons (http://www.daclarke.org/Humour/santa.html). Although Santa’s sleigh average altitude is difficult to assess, it is likely to travel most of the time within the Troposphere, mostly through its lower levels. However, whichever its altitude, its path could not possibly go unnoticed to the molecules in the atmosphere, and it must leave behind a long and tangled tri-dimensional labyrinth of severely ionized particles. This seems yet untapped for a new form of seasonal tropospheric propagation: “Sleigh Scatter” available only during the night of December 24th to the 25th…

It won’t happen…? Possibly not… But has anyone tried it…? The proof of the pudding (even if a Christmas pudding) must be in the eating…

Best Wishes and Season Greetings to all those visiting this Blog!

—————
PS.- The “sky wings” on the picture above is a sheath of ice crystals floating over the waters in the Mer Bleue bog at the onset of winter (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mer_Bleue_Conservation_Area).