31 May 2018

The Russians Are Watching

And so are the Chinese, the Iranians, the North Koreans, and very likely the eeevil Canadians (just joking about the Canadians).

A few days ago the ARRL posted a news item about how Army MARS will require their operators to use computers that are completely disconnected from the internet while running the Data Modem Terminal software during MARS operations. This comment is telling:
"Despite a stand-alone environment, we assume that all computer systems in private citizens' hands are infected with hostile software code of some sort and are not secured," he said. "No amount of virus and malware scanning software changes that assumption. We can, however, isolate computers by disconnecting them from the intentional network in which hostile software will report and receive instruction."
We are in an era where real-time monitoring of your digital radio communications activity is not just possible, but probable given the software you are using and the activity you are supporting.

Think it can't happen to you? Did you ever wonder why the Geek Squad at Best Buy was all but giving Kaspersky anti-virus software away?

We're watching, Comrade!

 W8BYH out

28 May 2018

On Prepping

'Prepping', or preparing for the next disaster or the ultimate apocalypse, is an activity that a lot of Amateur Radio operators (gleefully) participate in. Actually, it's more like the Preppers are participating in Amateur Radio. Either way, there's a huge overlap between ham radio and prepping. I hang out on the margins of this activity because I understand the importance of being prepared for likely disaster situations (note the emphasis on likely). Also, if 23 years in the Army teaches you anything it's to be prepared. And there's no organization better at prepping than the United States Army. It's an obsession with them. Lastly, there's a bit of perverse pleasure that comes from facing a disaster, even a small one like a power outage, with all the supplies and systems in place that allows you to look around your small castle and say, "I've got this".

I read a lot about prepping, follow a few forums devoted to prepping, watch a lot of YouTube videos on prepping and even participate in disaster prepping exercises through my local ARES group. Too much of what you read or see on-line is focused in the wrong direction for the average citizen. It seems most of the 'fantasy' preppers talk about bugging out to some remote retreat where they've tunneled into the side of a mountain, installed biological and radiological filters and blast-proof doors, laid in a 20 year supply of food and water, run hydroponic gardens and have a wonderful time riding out the apocalypse. They actually made a how-to movie about it:

But let's get real. Most of the likely disasters we face will be triggered by Mother Nature - either weather or earthquake. Hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, lightning strikes, snow storms or just run-of-the-mill flooding routinely impacts millions each year. Those of you (un)lucky enough to live in southern California face annual wildfire risks, plus every time San Andreas burps you're running into the streets hoping it isn't The Big One.

And then there's the impact of poorly maintained infrastructure. In August 2003 drooping power lines on a residential street in Ohio shorted out on tree branches, causing a generating station in East Lake, Ohio, to go off-line. A cascading series of events ended up shutting down power to huge sections of  New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island and the province of Ontario. Think about it. Some poorly maintained power lines on a residential street ended up cutting power to millions of people across the northeastern US and Canada.

While these are not full apocalypse situations, it shows that the S*** does Hit The Fan more than most people realize, and that it can happen without warning.

So how do you prepare for the most likely scenario you may face? Well rather than blather on and on I'm just going to let Scott Conover, AC2FV from Long Island tell you how it should be done. In May 2016 Scott posted an excellent, easy to watch and easy to follow video on just what it takes to survive a 'likely scenario' event. Using Super Storm Sandy as the defining example, Scott goes through the impact the storm had on Long Island, the survival scenarios it generated and how he mitigated them.

I strongly recommend this video to everyone concerned about prepping, even if you have zero interest in communications or ham radio. It is the most level-headed discussion of the topic of real-world prepping and response that I've seen. Watch and learn:

W8BYH out

26 May 2018

2018 Hurricane Season

Mother Nature's getting an early start. Better batten down the hatches.

To open this interactive web map in a new tab you can click here. The developer, ESRI, is the leading provider of geospatial-based web mapping and they provide this map as a part of their emergency and situational awareness services. It's good stuff. I'd bookmark it... just saying.

W8BYH out

Ham Radio Deluxe

For the past 4 months I've been 'struggling' to figure out Ham Radio Deluxe (HRD). I put 'struggling' into quotes because the struggle always came in 15 or 30 minute blocks when I had time to play with it. But inevitably I'd get frustrated because I always thought that HRD was getting in the way of my operating. I'd rather be on the radio than fiddling with the radio.

But in the past week I found myself with a lot of extra time off from work as I was playing nursemaid to my lovely XYL who had knee replacement surgery (she's doing fine, thank you). I became determined to figure out this program and make a decision to either keep using it or turn to something else.

Ham Radio Deluxe logging window

My motivation for learning HRD ended up being digital modes. I've been an SSB guy since I first got my General ticket over 15 years ago, but I really wanted to give digital modes a try. This was spurred by my interest in emergency communications. As much as I like voice communications I realize that passing messages by voice is a highly error prone process. Some level of expertise in digital communications is necessary if you expect to communicate effectively in times of emergency.

So, I thought I'd start with PSK31 and work up from there. PSK31 is extremely popular, allows keyboard-to-keyboard chats and there's usually someone hanging around the pre-determined frequencies on 80, 40 and 20 meters looking for a contact.

There's a lot of good digital mode software out there, the most famous being Fldigi (for 'fast, light digital'). Fldigi is free software that is maintained by a very talented development group and is something of the standard in digital communications. It is excellent software and is my #1 recommendation for someone looking for a digital mode package. But because Fldigi's focus is just on digital it leaves out a lot of features to support other modes of operation like SSB. I was looking for something more broad-based, something that could support all the modes I was interested in using - SSB, AM, digital and, perhaps some day, CW. I was also looking for an integrated logging program.

By process of elimination I settled on HRD and ponied up the money for an annual subscription. I manage application development for a living so I'm not afraid to pay for good software. I understand the costs involved in the development and maintenance of good software. But on the flip side I also expect a certain level of development and maintenance activity that you don't often find with 'freeware'. The management team at HRD seem to understand this, and they maintain steady progress on bug fixes, feature requests and bringing on new capabilities.

(Time for an aside here, because I know someone is going to bring this up. Several years ago HRD got a bad rap for how it was treating its paying customers. Things came to a head when, out of spite, one of its support staff turned off  several customers access to the software in retaliation for bad reviews. Soon after HRD management was reorganized and the new management team has been working hard at both improving the HRD software and doing damage control. The new HRD is not the old HRD, both from a software and management perspective. Yet reviewers on forums like eHam and QRZ.com continue to bitch about this incident as though it happened yesterday, using it as a tool to bludgeon HRD. To those I say, give it up. It's unwarranted and grossly unfair to the current management team, who are bending over backwards to provide a quality product and support.)

HRD is a program so chock full of variables that it can take days to get it all figured out. But the #1 variable, the one that seems to bedevil most users, is making the proper connection to the radio. This is where HRD excels compared to other programs. The guys who built the rig interface module knew what they were doing. After a few frustrating tries at manually configuring the connection parameters I threw up my hands and tried the 'auto-connect' feature. BINGO - instant connection. The module polls the radio, grabs the necessary connection settings and does the software configuration for you. But this is just to get the radio to talk to the software to control things like frequency and mode settings. Further configurations for digital modes can be a whole other level of frustration, even if your radio (like my IC-7300) has an integrated sound card. This is because proper configuration is a balancing act between your radio, the software and your computer hardware settings. If you use an external soundcard interface like the excellent Signalink things can be even more painfully complex. Only Rube Goldberg could have dreamed up something more twisted.

Why design something simple when it's far more fun to make it overly complex?

But things are not all peachy-keen on the HRD side. The HRD suite reflects its development origins where new modules were 'bolted-on' to a core product. This type of development is very common and is used across the software industry, but if the modules are not integrated from both a function and look and feel perspective the performance and user experience can be a bit rough. We see this in HRD with things like inconsistent menu structures, differences in icon & type styles, etc. as you move from module to module. We also see this as different modules try to compete for the same computer resources like serial ports. It can take developers several software versions to get new functionality fully integrated and matured and the hiccups smoothed out. Here's a hint - it took Microsoft well over a decade to get all the bits and pieces of what we know as Microsoft Office to work together seamlessly and share the same look and feel. The Microsoft Office development team members can be counted in the hundreds. HRD likely has less than a dozen. Given the overall complexity of HRD, the clean-up effort required to bring legacy code up to snuff and the work needed to develop, test and integrate new features I'm willing to give the HRD team time to smooth things out.

OK, back to PSK31. After several hours of tweaking I was finally rewarded with settings on both the radio side and the HRD side that allowed me to transmit a clean PSK31 signal. I happened to get it running just before a busy digital mode contest weekend, so I had lots of opportunities to hone my settings and set up my macros. Once I got things figured out it was like shooting fish in a barrel - see a PSK31 CQ call signal stream in the waterfall, click on it, throw your callsign back and the odds were better than 50/50 that the other station would acknowledge you. Easy peasy. The log filled up fast. But I'm sure for most of you reading this, PSK31 is old news.

A bit of  keyboard chat with KG4ZQY in Brunswick, GA.
I find that the PSK31 baud rate closely matches my touch typing speed, so keyboard-to-keyboard
is actually a lot of fun

But it was while playing with PSK31 that I found perhaps the biggest benefits of HRD:
  • The data mode module talks to the radio configuration module which talks to the rig control module which talks to the logbook module which talks to the callsign lookup module which talks to the DX cluster module which... well, you get it. Everything talks to everything else, fairly seamlessly and quickly. The developers have done a good job integrating the various modules that make up HRD.
  • HRD is stable. It has not frozen or hiccuped even once on the three Windows 10 laptops I've tested it on. Now that's an accomplishment. In the software world stability trumps features every time. I'm glad HRD has focused on stability, even if it's at the expense of bringing on new features.
I now have HRD running on a Panasonic Toughbook with an i5 dual core processor, 16 GB of system memory and plain-jane Intel graphics - good but not great specs for a laptop today. The software just loafs along, gobbling up less than 2% of system resources and plays well with other software packages like Winlink 2000 that demand access to serial ports and other resources.

I can't say if HRD is the best thing going for an integrated ham radio software package. I can say that it works and works well for me. I'll continue to train up on Fldigi simply because that's the standard within the ARES groups I support, but for general use, HRD - and the IC-7300 - makes for a crackerjack setup.

W8BYH out

04 May 2018

Ground Mounted Vertical

For the past two years or so I've been using a vertical HF antenna set manufactured by Chameleon Antenna out of Sparks, Nevada. Chameleon is known for producing well made portable antennas and components and the customer service is outstanding.

The HF antenna I use isn't a single product. Chameleon sells a variety of components that you can use to build an antenna 'system', and what I've cobbled together consists of the the Chameleon Hybrid base - a 5:1 matching transformer - and two vertical whip sections. I normally use a jaw clamp to secure the antenna to a tripod supported mast. This arrangement requires counterpoise wires, and I run three or four counterpoises set out between 40 & 60 feet to help tuning on the lower bands. Chameleon is honest in its literature by stating that most antenna setups will require a tuner or matching unit, but the 5:1 matching transformer should provide a low enough VSWR on all bands that your tuner should have no trouble finding a match. I also find it helpful to place a common mode choke right at the feedpoint to help tame the SWR.

When clamped to the tripod mast and hoisted 8' or so in the air the antenna is a great performer. Chameleon will tell you that with a vertical antenna, height is everything, so the higher you get it in the air the better the performance. As long as the bands cooperate I've had no trouble making contacts all over the eastern US and into the Caribbean. It's not a DX antenna, but for regional communications it works just fine.

The Chameleon in its normal setup, clamped to a tripod mounted mast

Setup can take a little time, and if there's any wind the antenna needs to be guyed for support, but once it's up it is a great performer

The Chameleon vertical makes for a great 'tailgate portable' setup

Recently I was operating at a local park and broke my tripod center pole. This is simply an inexpensive painters pole that slides into the tripod center socket so I wasn't too upset. But I didn't have a spare so it left me without a way to stand up the antenna.

Then I remember that I had a Chameleon ground spike with me. The Chameleon spike is a simple stainless steel spike with a socket threaded to accept the standard 3/8 x 24 mounting bolts used on most portable ham radio antenna bases. The spike is designed specifically to support Chameleon's vertical antenna components but in reality can be used with just about any vertical antenna with a 3/8 x 24 base.

I had purchased the spike over a year ago, looked it over and tossed it into my antenna bag thinking it might come in handy one day. Well, that day had arrived. With a broken tripod there was no other way for me to support this vertical antenna. A few whacks with a mallet and the spike was in the ground. I screwed in the antenna sections, attached the counterpoises, hooked up the coax and hoped for the best.

The spike supporting the Chameleon 5:1 matching unit and vertical sections

I need not have worried - even in this era of lousy band conditions this setup got me in to NW Ohio and Maryland up near Baltimore on 40 meters. In fact, it was 'Ohio NVIS Test Day' and I was talking to folks around Columbus and Dayton on their NVIS setups with no problem - from well south of Atlanta.

The antenna setup using the Chameleon capacitance hat, which isn't a true 'cap-hat',
but it makes the antenna a little more broad-banded on the lower frequencies

I was also able to make connections to Winlink nodes on 40 meters up to 490 miles away. Overall I was quite pleased with the setup. Yes, I'm sure it would have performed better mounted to the tripod and hoisted up 8 feet or so, but you have to work with what you have, and this was all I had, and it worked!

Making connections to Winlink nodes as far away as Pennsylvania was no problem. Notice the vertical antenna
peeking up just over the Signalink unit

Chameleon vertical on the right, radio on the left. A beautiful, cool day. A great location. Radios.
What more can you ask for?

Would I ever deliberately choose this ground spike setup over a tripod mounted setup? No, but it does provide a means to get on the air quickly. With practice I'm sure I could have this antenna combination set up and and on the air in under 10 minutes. If you are working an emergency communications scenario where you need to get a minimal communications capability on the air fast to buy time to set up a more robust antenna configuration, this spike/vertical combo is ideal.

W8BYH out