More than just a Ham radio blog.
is an informative, cynical and sometimes humorous look at what is happening in the world of amateur radio.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Foundation Licence Course

It is with great pleasure that I can announce that due to unprecedented demand the Mold and District Amateur Radio Club will be running a Foundation Licence Course starting Wednesday 6th October 2010 at Mold Rugby Club, Mold. Anyone wishing to join the course is welcome to do so, just turn up or contact Steve GW7AAV or Keith GW4OKT (details correct on QRZ.com). We also plan to run a Full Licence course in the new year.

Regards Steve GW7AAV (Chairman Mold and District ARC)

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Facebook Inspires Hams

The question was recently asked on the Summits on the Air reflector "Is SOTA on Facebook?". The answer to that question was a resounding yes and although there are more than few people within (and without) SOTA who question social networking's usefulness there are several SOTA groups on Facebook. SOTA (Summits on the Air), SOTA (Summits On The Air), (sota) summits on the air, SOTA Greece, SOTAmaps.com etcetera. Despite what the FB haters will tell you SOTA (Summits on the Air) has 200 members as does (sota) summits on the air, SOTA Greece 366 members and SOTA (Summits On The Air) 56 members.

Facebook can be a useful tool to keep in touch with friends and family and through my wife Helen's interest in tracing the family tree we have reconnected with members of the family in diverse parts of the UK and the rest of the world that we have either lost contact with or, in some cases never even knew existed. We also use it to keep in touch with friends including those we made on the radio, such as through SOTA and such like, but up until now there has never been a cross over between family and our ham radio buddies.

It came as quite a surprise when my son Adam and daughter Caroline showed an interest and went on to pass first the Novice and then the Intermediate exams, but it was more surprising when an email came in the other day from the other side of the Atlantic. The email was from my cousin Elaine who lives in Virginia. We have only met once and we hooked up because of Helen's genealogy project, but have kept in touch since via email and Facebook. She used to live in Silicon Valley California where her husband worked in the computer industry. Apparently her tech savvy hubby Tim had been talking about taking his amateur radio licence for some time and now they had settled in Virginia he was persuaded to do something about it. Then my cousin remembered about seeing our radio antics on Facebook and said if Helen could do it then so could she. Since then Helen has had emails asking questions about the hobby such as what is RAYNET and how do we do this and that? It has certainly kept Helen busy answering the very good questions she gets and she has learnt a thing or two about how things are done in the US as she researched answers on the Internet. It will be great if they carry on to get licensed and who knows one day we may get to talk over the air. Tim also likes the idea of working portable from the mountain tops and wants to get into SOTA. Who says Facebook is a useless waste of time?

New and Used Rig Prices

I noticed on a friends Facebook page that he is selling his Yaesu FT-857D and ATAS 120 antenna. He was after £600 for the two. I was amazed at what he was asking for them as when I bought my second (new) 857D and an ATAS 120 in July 2008 I paid £659.95 for the pair new including delivery. I only paid £325 (used) for my first FT-857D a couple of months earlier and I figured a used ATAS was worth £120 tops.

Some investigation was required for me to understand why he expected nearly as much as I paid new for his used gear that he had bought a little under year later. Checking his receipt revealed he paid a total of £809.96. I was somewhat surprised at the leap in price over eleven months, but when I started checking current prices I was taken aback. The recommended retail price in the United Kingdom is a whopping £1,099.90 and there are dealers out there who are charging that plus delivery. The next highest price came from Waters and Stanton at £929.90. Nevada were a little better at £849.90, but Martin Lynch and sons came out at £819.95, which is nearly £280 lower than the RRP and only £10 more than they charged 16 months ago. However it is £190 more than it was 27 months earlier.

In conclusion I guess my friend is not asking an over the top price for his immaculate, hardly used gear, but he is asking far more than I would pay if I was in the market for another rig. My personal feeling is if something is secondhand I will pay around half what was been paid for it, not half what a new one costs, even if it is unused. My estimate of a good price for an Yaesu FT-857D and an ATAS 120 is £450 for the two, but then there are suckers born every minute. The set up is now on eBay and I am watching the auction with interest.

People will use the excuse that supply and demand governs the price of second user radio equipment and the ridiculous prices charged by dealers for it proves there are idiots out there prepared to pay whatever the asking price is, but maybe there should be part of the training for the radio amateurs exam that includes how to haggle and how to figure out what something should be worth.

One problem is that people are basing what they charge on how much a new one costs, not what they paid and that is compounded by ever rising prices of new gear. Not so long ago all the prices of new gear went up (again) and several of the dealers sent out emails or took out advertisments saying this was due to the exchange rate, but I notice that when the exchange rate returned to its previous levels the prices never came down. Then is there the strange case of why something costs less in US dollars than it does in UK pounds, for example one (randomly picked) US dealer is charging $579 for the FT857ND, which at todays exchange rate is £369.73 against ML&Sons price of £589.95. For £220 you can probably have a nice week in the states and pick the rig up while you are there and it has always been the same. Welcome to rip off Britian!

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Yaesu Atas 120 issues

When I bought my second Yaesu FT857D it was to use in the car. I bought the first one because I wanted a bit more power when portable than my Yaesu 817 allowed. I had used my Icom IC706 MKIIG and found it wanting when portable. The problem is the Icom draws too much current both on receive and transmission and when used from a low battery voltage it goes loopy and starts to self oscillate. The problem is in the DSP circuit but turning DSP off does not fix the issue. In the shack the Icom is superior but in a field or on a hilltop the FT857 wins hands down as my battery lasts longer and long after the Icom has died it is still going, way down to around 9.2 volts I have still managed contacts on HF.

I bought the second 857 because I wanted an easy to tune antenna for mobile HF operations and the Yaesu is designed to work with the Atas 120 antenna. There are better screwdriver antennas than the Atas but none work on a single button push like the ATAS does with the 857.

I had trouble finding somewhere to mount the antennas on my Land Rover Discovery and settled for a home made mounting bracket inserted into the runners for the roof rail. This worked fine for my VHF/UHF antennas but I initially could not tune the ATAS at all. The addition of an earthing strap almost sorted that but I could not tune the 40 metres band.

A chance clue was picked up on air when I heard someone say they had shortened their earth strap and got an antenna they could not tune to tune up. I prepared a new shorter earth strap and swapped it over, bingo! 40m now worked. As a result I had an amazing run of great contacts with SOTA stations usually while travelling at the national speed limit on motorways (Helen was driving), which collected me plenty of chaser points I previously would have missed. However when I came to try to work a SOTA station on 20m it no longer tuned there, but every other band still worked fine.

The whole thing is a little curious and but feel sure there is an optimum length for the earth strap that will allow all the bands to be tuned, so I have a few exeperiments to do when I get time. In the meantime maybe someone will read this and explain what might be going on.

The ups and downs of a SOTA hill bagger

I cannot believe how time has flown and just how busy I have been since my trip to Scotland. I came back totally chilled out only for life to kick me swiftly in the place that hurts the most and it has not stopped kicking me since. One disaster after another with topping of disappointment and a desert of raised hopes dashed on the rocks. After the warm friendly reception in the Highlands everything since seems to have restored my distrust of human nature.

For various reasons legal, personal and having been sworn to secrecy I cannot discuss most of what has been happening, but I can tell you that having my credit card ripped off for £1,030 was just one of them. I had been experiencing a twelve hour day of shear hell at work last Thursday and after getting home late I walked in to the credit card's fraud department on the telephone. All I wanted to do was shower, eat and fall in to bed, instead I had two hours of question and answer on the telephone. After destroying our credit cards I had something to eat and then went for a shower. When I came back in to the shack I turned on eighty metres only to realise I was meant to have been taking part in the RSGB's 80m Sprint. I sent an email to the contest group but I felt bad about it, particularly as I missed the last one while I was away in Scotland. I was available for that one too, but I had used most of my mobile broadband allowance talking on Skype the first couple of days and as a result did not get the reminder email until the day after, when we went for a coffee at a place with free WiFi.

Apart from missing the Sprint the Scotish trip was a great couple of weeks. We stopped at a cottage just outside Evanton on the Cromerty Firth. It was the kind of place you see in those glossy magazines, "Homes of the rich and famous", we loved it. All the bedrooms had en suite bathrooms and flat-screen TVs and you could get lost in the bed in the master bedroom. The ever changing views over the Firth were enhanced by fields of golden barley waving gently in the breeze and the whole place had a laid back atmosphere.

On arrival I quickly set up a linked dipole using an ex-army mast and a couple of trees as supports. We managed to bag a handful of local summits for Summits On The Air including one that appears to have not been done before. In between doing the usual touristy things I worked plenty of HF from both the cottage and the car. It was great to work so many lighthouses for International Lighthouse Weekend, but Helen drew a line in the sand when I said I wanted to do a lighthouse activation down at Chanonry Point lighthouse.

It was during one of our SOTA activations that Christine GM4YMM told us of another reason to visit Chanonry Point and that was to see the dolphins. She also invited us to visit her and husband Ken GM0AXY when we were stopping close to Edinburgh on the way home. That evening after an early meal we headed to see the dolphins, but the weather was rough and the wind bit through our clothing, reminding us that what works well when you are plodding up hills sweating like a horse does not necessarily work stood still for hours on a storm battered beach. We saw some dolphins and took some photographs but vowed to come back another day when the weather was kinder. That day came later in the week when I hooked up with Tom M1EYP (operating as MM1EYP/P) who was on the same summit as I had been on a few days earlier. I mentioned the dolphins at Chanonry Point and Tom said he was aware of them and was going to watch them that evening. We joined Tom and his family and had a lovely time watching the dolphins from the beach and chatting away until we all started to feel the cold again.

Tom was up on holiday but had been invited to give his SOTA presentation by the Inverness amateur radio club. Adrian 2M0ETR had been in touch before our trip with the intention of joining us on an activation and although that never worked out he came around to the house and showed us the way to the Inverness club for Tom's talk. It was brilliant to put faces to call-signs and meet some new guys who hopefully will call in when they hear us in future. I must say the the Scots we have met during our expeditions have been some of the most welcoming people I have ever met. I left Scotland with my faith in human nature at an all time high, but as I mentioned that feeling was soon reversed after we got home.

Tom's talk was interesting mainly because of the different ways we do things on the hills. I learnt a few new tricks but did not hold back when I thought I knew a slightly better way. Maybe I should have kept my mouth shut but then I would not have been me. There were some more good ideas floated by us by another Adrian, MM0DHY who is not only a SOTA activator but an accomplished mountaineer and whom tackles summits Tom and I would never consider and even does them in the dark in winter. He has successfully activated Sgurr Dearg - The so called Inaccessible Pinnacle GM/SI-002 for SOTA and told us of his plans to scale some difficult sea stacks. Adrian seems one of those rare thing these days a a nice guy and a gentleman. He is a real character with a hint of eccentricity and based even on our fairly brief meeting I suspect an IQ off the scale, but maybe it was his bow tie that fooled me.

After tea and biscuits it was time to head back to the cottage from the former secret bunker where the Inverness guys have their well set up club. RAYNET is finely woven in to the club structure and they work extensively with the county emergency planners, who let them have use of the bunker and a communications mast. I was most impressed with how they use packet radio links out to the islands off the East coast to cover most of Norther Scotland. As one who was convinced packet was dead it came as quite a surprise.

Getting back was not as simple as it might have been as the access road had been closed for overnight repairs, but it was fun driving down the diversions that had been set up down what under normal circumstances are foot paths. I was glad I was driving a 4X4 though as some of the potholes were quite deep.

After a wonderful fortnight we left Evanton on Saturday 28th August and drove down to a place called Seton Sands. We had chosen this location as it was halfway on our 416 mile journey home. After spending two weeks living in luxury it was always going to be a downer stopping in a Haven caravan, but it was only for a couple of nights and it was advertised as a "luxury" model. It was not luxury it was a skip, except dirtier. The shower was broken, the beds uncomfortable, the crockery and cutlery unwashed, the tiny TV only picked up one channel and that was unwatchable as it had lines and rolled every few minutes. The site its self is quite nice but the accommodation and service left a lot to be desired. The main issue was the poor state of everything in the van but the fact that we had just come from a house where the en-suite bathroom was bigger than the whole thing did not help me drifting off in to a mild state of depression.

We just had to get out and on Sunday morning we visited the "National Museum of Flight" at East Fortune and had an enjoyable few hour wandering around the exhibits, that included Concorde, a Vulcan bomber and much more. After lunch we headed back to Seton Sands where my two daughters had booked an archery lesson. Then we headed out to Edinburgh to visit Ken and Christine. Once again we were astounded at the welcome we received, what wonderful people! Ken and Christine are SOTA chasers and activators and I have worked them on their activations and they have worked us on ours, but that is as far as it went. We spent all evening together and found plenty to talk about. Christine dished up a delicious meal and Ken and I demolished several bottles of red wine. I was sad to leave and more than a little jealous of Ken's StepIR HF antenna.

On Monday we headed for home and had a pleasant, uneventful journey until we pulled up on the driveway. As we unpacked the Land Rover Discovery we heard a hissing, the front off-side tyre had a hole the size of your fist. My problems were just starting. Next morning I was told a replacement for the big chunky off road tyre would be £210 plus fitting and sales tax. I would never replace only one so that was a quick £500 out of my pocket that had been seriously depleted due to our holiday. That was not the worst bit; there was a six week (mimimum) wait before they could get them for me and we needed the car for work. Eventually a friend located some tyres for £100 each including fitting and tax, but when they came to remove the wheels the wheel lock had been stripped and so it goes on; one disaster after another with topping of disappointment and a desert of raised hopes dashed on the rocks.