Author Archive

Where did I find those other 60 hours a week?

So I finally pulled the plug on the day job six weeks ago. For the first time since I was 18 years old, I don’t have a regular pay check coming in. Unless you count that Social Security thing, which is hardly enough to call a “paycheck.”  I had big plans for all the new spare time I was going to have in retirement, including actually getting on the air more, seeking out long, rambling ragchews, working more PSK31 and RTTY, doing some QRP, maybe even building a kit or two and trying out an antenna idea I’ve been contemplating.  Contemplating for a dozen years.

Truth is, I only retired from one of my several jobs.  For some reason, I quit the only one that actually paid me a regular wage, which automatically brings my sanity into question.  But like a gas occupying a vacuum, the other things I do quickly expanded to take up all my available time, including what the day job once took.  I have no idea how I was able to work those sixty hours a week at the old vocation!

Some of you may be aware that I am a writer, too, and just published my 24th book.  I’ve also finally gotten around to putting one of my novels–my second book, published way back in 1997–up on as an eBook.  (I hope it finds a bigger audience this time because it is near to my heart, the story of a young man who falls in love with the magic of radio, goes on to a career in broadcasting as a deejay, and eventually his best friend, who just happens to be a ham, saves his bacon…using a trick many of you will recognize.  It’s titled WIZARD OF THE WIND and, yes, there is a lot of me in that story!)

I’m also finishing up an amateur radio book, one that has been in the works for a while, too.  It will include some of the articles and short stories I’ve put up on and more.  I want it to not only entice those who develop an interest in ham radio to go ahead and take the plunge but to also encourage those already in the hobby to explore other aspects and become true evangelists for it.

When I was writing WIZARD OF THE WIND, I actually took a weekend job at an oldies radio station for a year, working a weekend deejay shift,  just to get that old feeling back.  It really helped me put it into words as I worked on the novel.  Maybe now is the time that I should be getting on the ham bands more, broadening my own horizons so I can capture the magic of the hobby as I work on the new book.

I think I just talked myself into getting off this blog and seeing what the DX clusters are saying.  Or watching the waterfall for a bit on 20M PSK31.  Time’s wasting!

Don Keith N4KC

(A blog about rapid technological change and its

effect on society, media, and ham radio)

We love new gear, don’t we?

I’ve been watching with some amusement as the news continues to break about the newest entry into the ham gear market…Kenwood’s TS-990S. It dovetails nicely with other big roll-outs such as Elecraft’s KX-3. As soon as the ad for the 990 appeared on the back of last month’s QST and CQ with word that a prototype would be shown at Dayton, the message boards have exploded with speculation about what kind of rig it would be, what features it would have, how much it would cost, and more. And there were the immediate negative comments, too.

“Who needs another ($4000, $5000, $10,000, $Trillion…take your pick) ham rig?”

“Why don’t they do a QRP rig instead of another (IC-7600, IC-7700, IC-7800, FT-5000, FT-9000…take your pick) clone transceiver?”

“Will it have a band scope?” “Will it have (one, two, three, sixteen…take your pick) USB ports?”  “It’s bigger than the TS-850.  I don’t want it.”  It’s smaller than the TS-850.  I don’t want it.”

There have even been many who denigrate Kenwood for their lack of marketing acumen on so many scores you would actually think those posters actually  knew anything at all about the top-secret radio. Or assume they know more about marketing ham gear than Kenwood–who has been doing it for many, many years now.

Then things really went bonkers this week with the publication of an ad on the back page of the June QST:

Kenwood TS-990S
Ad in June QST for the new Kenwood TS-990S
Now guys could really go goofy!  If you look at the ad carefully, the date on the display is “April 1.”  April Fool’s!  Kenwood is just messing with us.  It’s all a hoax.  And the image is obviously Photoshopped.  All the knobs’ indicators are straight up and down.  Nobody would have the knobs that way on a “real” radio. 
Posts have been flying!  People are Googling left and right.  Kenwood has a small, non-descript press release on their main site but nothing on the amateur radio pages, so obviously the radio does not exist.  There won’t be a working model at Dayton so it will be years before it is on the market. 
You know what?  Kenwood unveils the radio at Dayton in one week.  They say it will be on the market in “winter 2012” (which I thought ended back on March 21, but maybe they mean this coming winter.).  And we’ll all have ample opportunity to see the specs, read reviews, and even twiddle the knobs at some point.
All this hoopla is sort of silly don’t you think?  Yeah, me too. 
Ooops.  Somebody on one of the several TS-990S reflectors just posted a bit of an email he got from some guy whose brother-in-law talked to a Kenwood rep at Visalia!  See you later…
Don N4KC

Luddite…or just a traditionalist

There is quite a debate raging over on about a service provided to amateur radio operators by the ARRL. With the Internet and computer being an integral part of most of our shacks, the ARRL created Logbook of the World, an electronic way to do confirmations of QSOs, a function previously done by QSL cards through the mail. Some say they went overboard on the security aspect of their system. It does require a security certificate with an applicant’s call sign and location verified through the Federal Communications Commission before it is granted to the user. Many hams have had difficulties setting up the system on their computers or moving it to a different machine when necessary and are having a fit about having to jump through such hoops for what they see as no real good reason.

The thrust of the eHam comments–and those with a negative view tend to dominate this discussion just as they do any Internet forum–is that LoTW is too complex, that it threatens the traditional printed, post office-delivered QSL card, and even that it threatens the “privacy” of anyone who uses the system since the League could sell that info or it could be subpoenaed by some nefarious government agency.

This type of debate seems to be quite common these days anytime there is a new-fangled way to do anything in our society. I suspect a big part of it is simple resistance to technological change. People still have a choice in most things technical. You don’t have to use a smart phone, join Facebook, have an email address, or use an online QSO confirmation service. But I understand why anyone with an aversion to change or a distrust–however well placed or dismally unfounded it might be–of all this technology is reluctant to accept it.

I enjoy getting a QSL card from a new country in Africa or one that bears a picture of a ham’s antenna farm in rural Belgium. I hope we never lose that personal touch. But I also enjoy the convenience and cost savings of being able to confirm contacts electronically. Stamps to mail to some parts of the world are expensive. It can take years to send and receive back a card. Stations in rare locations get tons of requests for confirmations and that can run into big expense for them, too. Some even ask for “green stamps”to offset their expenses, but putting cash into an envelope is risky, especially in some spots where an envelope bound for a ham radio operator is routinely opened because everyone knows there are bucks in there.

But the real reason I endorse LoTW and similar services is that it allows me to easily and inexpensively extend the courtesy of a confirmation to anyone and everyone who wants it for whatever reason. I still get paper cards and I display them on the wall in my office/”shack.” I enjoy looking at them. I hope they never stop coming. But I also recognize that there is a way that is better in most aspects and that allows me to benefit from the service. And I believe there are enough people like me who still like the card that they will probably not go away.

And isn’t that what new technology is supposed to do? I love the fact that I can download a book on my Nook, but I also still enjoy the traditional book. I also think both methods will still be around for a long, long time.

But I also understand that all this change is scaring the bejesus out of some folks.

A startling reminder

I always look forward to receiving my QST and CQ magazines each month, and I dutifully run to the CQ web site every month when the latest PDF of Worldradio News is made available for download. I really do enjoy reading about our hobby and appreciate the authors who contribute to these publications (for very little money in return). Shoot, I even study the ads, including those that have not changed in decades. (Why do some vendors insist on showing the faces of every radio by every manufacturer, as if we make our purchasing decisions based on those tiny thumbnails? And will MFJ ever change the full-page Hy-Gain rotator ad?)

However, as I opened the current edition of CQ, I could not help but notice that the lead article is about all the new gear unveiled at Dayton this year. Dayton. As in May! And it’s August. We once took such delay in a story’s content as the norm. It is, after all, the nature of the magazine publishing biz that there must be considerable lead time.

But as I read the short writeup on the Elecraft KX3, I recalled that there was a YouTube video posted way back on May 20 featuring Wayne Burdick K6XR giving a very enlightening ten-minute demo of this interesting bit of kit. In color. With sound. Old news in CQ? I’m afraid so.

ARRL recently did a major update on their web site, but it is still clunky and hard to navigate. It does offer some video (welcome to the 21st century) and plenty of archived articles and reviews, all of which is much more current, colorful, and searchable than the magazine could ever be. CQ is also trying, buying World Radio News and offering it as a free download.

But I have to worry that the day will come when it is no longer economically feasible to mail me a magazine every month. I still prefer taking that paper-and-stapled pub out on the deck to read, or to Subway at lunch to peruse while I enjoy my Black Forest ham sandwich.

Won’t happen, you say? The traditional magazine will never go away. Okay, can I see your latest copy of Look or Life? Mind if I borrow your Saturday Evening Post?

I rest my case. Truth is, media consumers want their content in a wide variety of ways, and will choose such media on three primary criteria: 1) How easy it is to consume in all those myriad ways, 2) How compelling the content is, and 3) How cheap it is to access.

I’m afraid that does not bode well for QAT and CQ.


Don Keith N4KC


Our little sliver of time

All the news sources–I saw it on Yahoo!, of all places–are churning out stories today about the current state of the surface of the sun. Three different “experts” have issued dire predictions about the sleepy sun and what it means for mankind…and not just us hams, who enjoy bouncing signals off an ionized atmosphere.

You know as well as I do that simply saying this cycle is slow to develop is not going to attract much reader interest. But if you say there is the possibility that the dormancy of Ole Sol portends historic implications, that it could reverse the effects of that evil, man-made global warming (or make it even more dire), that there could be unknown but potentially catastrophic weather events as a result…heck, even that we are on the verge of another Maunder Minimum, when the sun went to sleep for 300 years and we entered a “mini-Ice Age!”…then you will get some attention. Attention to your columns, your websites, your blogs, your books, your speeches.

I know it is human nature to see things from a very narrow perspective. Understanding things like climate change that usually take eons to be obvious and drawing conclusions about variations in sunspot minima and maxima that only occur in eleven-year cycles are difficult for us mortals to do. Geologic time and cosmologic time and distance are impossible for us to comprehend in our simple little seven- or eight-decade life spans. That’s why all the junk about rapid climate change (which I consider normal weather variation and based on decidedly short-term data) has found so many who are willing to swallow it, hook, line and sinker.

I admit I know little about sunspots or solar weather, beyond the fact that more spots equal better propagation on the high-frequency radio bands and pretty displays of the Northern Lights. And I appreciate data and scientific observation. But seems to me that it is far too early to say the sun is going to be dozing for the next three centuries simply because cycle 24 is a tad bit slow to get moving. After all, many of these same “experts” were touting what an active cycle this was going to be…and they were doing it only a year or so ago.

Reminds me of the high-tech “weather rock” my wife has in her flower garden. “If this rock is wet, it is raining. If it is dry, it is sunny. If it is white, it is snowing.”

I’m still hoping for an active solar cycle. I have somehow managed to be inactive in my amateur radio activities during each of the past two cycle maxima, and I had high hopes for that “arm-chair” ragchew with the Far East on 10 meters in the middle of the day. But if it doesn’t measure up, so be it. I talked to plenty of guys all over the world at the yawning chasm between the peaks, after all.

But most of all, I’d like to see everyone calm down a bit and not be so myopic. We see only a tiny slice of time in our own existence. Even so-called scientific observations are looking at a pitifully narrow slab of time and only a tiny bit of reliable data.

Put it into perspective before you panic and sell all your ham gear. Or before you stop gazing northward for a glimpse of the aurora borealis.

By the way, I checked. There is nothing we can do about the state of the sun’s surface anyway, so why worry?

Don N4KC

Old dog (very old!), new tricks

I’ve been slow to adopt digital communications for a very practical reason: between the day job and writing books, I spend ten to twelve hours a day on a computer keyboard. When I get on the air, I prefer my keyer paddle or microphone when I reach out and touch. But friends kept evangelizing about the wonderment of PSK31, and I kept seeing rare DX entities that I covet being spotted on PSK31 and RTTY, so I finally bit the bullet. Well, sir, I have seen the light! I am officially converted!

I was on the verge of doing a quick and dirty hookup just to get a feel for the stuff but I had an order I was submitting to DX Engineering anyway so I included a SignaLink USB in the shopping cart. Of course, I managed to order the wrong interface cable for my Kenwood TS-2000…it would have worked but I would have had to plug and unplug the microphone…but DXE handled the swap seamlessly. And in no time, I was PSKing with the best of ’em. Downloading and setting up my software
of choice took most of the time. The SignaLink only required setting some jumpers internally for my radio. The manual and an extra sheet were well-written, though I did have to go to the Internet to get some tips on working with Microsoft Vista. That should make it into the standard manual soon, I would hope.

I confess I did quite a bit of RTTY back in the ’70s, when we used old, noisy, oil-and-sprocket-slinging surplus teletype machines and boxes of fan-fold paper. I recall that back then, unless you were blessed with pretty decent power, and with constant duty that required a hefty amp and power supply, the mode was susceptible to QRM as well as drifting, and more. I did enjoy it, despite these drawbacks.

But I’ve quickly learned there is no comparison with PSK31. I have not even tried RTTY yet due to my fascination with this narrow, narrow mode. Friends told me, but I didn’t believe them. When I was ready to go and tuned the receiver to 14.070 and heard that caterwauling bunch of cats in heat, I smirked and said to myself, “Self, there is no way you can pull any intelligence out of all that screeching!”

But there on the waterfall (I use Ham Radio Deluxe Digital Master 780 software) were a good dozen clearly defined traces. I could copy any one of them. I tried a couple of them so dim I could hardly see them in the clutter and got almost solid print on them, too. Finally, I clicked on one and saw it was a UA9. When he finished his QSO and called CQ, I answered, making sure to keep the power level low…about 20 watts…as advised. He came right back and we proceeded to have a nice chat. I’ve had a bunch since, all over Europe, the US, and South and Central America, mostly on 20 and 17.

Just the other night, I gave UX1IW a call and, as I have grown accustomed to, he came right back. We were chatting away (he gave me an RSQ of 599) when I noticed each of my wattmeters were barely moving off the peg. Huh? Oh. I had been using the amp on CW earlier in the evening and had left the RF out on the TS-2000 on 35 watts. With the audio out from my sound card set as usual, I was barely running 5 watts!

So, I’m evangelized. I do wish there was a little less reliance on the canned macros, one of the other things I did not like so much in the old RTTY days. But all in all, I am darned impressed with this PSK31 stuff.

Moral of the story is that we can always learn something new. And it is always surprising how something as simple as trying a new band or mode can reinvigorate our interest in this wonderful hobby.

As if I need reinvigorating!


Don Keith N4KC

Don Keith: You might be a real ham radio operator if…

Recent comments on some of the amateur radio web forums have attempted to posit the point that someone is not a “REAL HAM” unless he or she meets certain arbitrary criteria.  Those include such requirements as passing a code test to get licensed, using equipment with tubes in it, or being able to build a transceiver from scratch, using only a pie tin, a set of shoe laces, and a handful of grab-bag parts from a swap meet.

With apologizes to a certain comedian who has made a gazillion dollars with his “You might be a redneck if…” shtick, here goes my feeble attempt at a similar definition of a “REAL HAM:”

  • If you have a ham band antenna on all four fenders of your car, the roof, in the trunk lip, and another one clamped to the trailer hitch with an alligator clip and duct tape…you might be a “REAL HAM!”
  • If your wife…sorry, “XYL”…asks you to help bring in the groceries while you are chasing a rare one and you yell back, “QRX!  QRX!”…you might be a “REAL HAM!”
  • If you can recite the numbers of every driver, modulator, and final amplifier tube in every Heathkit, Drake or Collins transmitter or amplifier ever made, and name the best idling grid current for 90% of them…you might be a “REAL HAM!”
  • If when you were a teenager, you tore open the cases of your little brother’s “Flash Gordon” walkie-talkies just to see if you could modify them to work on 10 meters or used the pans from your sister’s Easy-Bake oven to breadboard a code-practice oscillator…you might be a “REAL HAM!”
  • If you have ever tried to ker-chunk the repeater while riding in a funeral procession…you might be a “REAL HAM!”
  • If your kids…sorry, “harmonics”…know your call sign, your grid square, and your 10-10 number, but not your middle name…you might be a “REAL HAM!”
  • If you have at least a half-dozen different sets of hilarious (at least to you and the guys on your 75-meter roundtable) phonetics for your call letters…you might be a “REAL HAM!”
  • If you have more countries confirmed than you have dollars in your 401-K and more bucks invested in your tower, rotor and tri-bander than you have in your retirement annuity…you might be a “REAL HAM!”
  • If you have ever taken an HT to church or a scanner to the courthouse while on jury duty…you might be a “REAL HAM!”
  • If you painted the walls of the new playroom downstairs in the colors of the resistor color code…you might be a “REAL HAM!”
  • If you ever chopped up your wife’s…sorry, XYL’s…patio furniture to build a Yagi for 15…you might be a “REAL HAM!”
  • If you have ever attempted to use a gutter downspout, the hubcap from a ’93 Buick, your dog’s food dish, your neighbor’s rose trellis, the vent hose from a clothes dryer, a wicket from your mom’s croquet set, or a one-quart metal Thermos bottle (with or without coffee) as an antenna…you might be a “REAL HAM!”
  • If you read the ARRL “Repeater Directory” or the latest catalog from one of the big “candy stores” while taking your daily “constitutional” …you might be a “REAL HAM!”
  • If you know the formulae for Ohm’s Law and Kirchoff’s Law and can read a Smith Chart from 100 feet but have no idea who Paris Hilton is…you might be a “REAL HAM!”
  • If you typically go to hamfests wearing your “Hams do it with frequency” tee-shirt, a “KNOW CODE” belt buckle, at least two HTs clipped to your belt and an earpiece for each in each ear, a pith helmet with a 440 ground plane sticking out the top, and a blinking-LED button with your callsign on it…you might be a “REAL HAM!”
  • If you know the prefixes for every DXCC entity as well as their beam headings but you don’t know your oldest kid’s…sorry, “first harmonic’s”…birthday…you might be a “REAL HAM!”
  • If you ever flagged down a local utility bucket truck and tried to bribe the guy to hang some ropes and pulleys in the trees in the backyard…you might be a “REAL HAM!”
  • If you ever tried to convince your fiancé that Dayton, Ohio, has replaced Niagara Falls as the Honeymoon Capitol of the World and that the first part of May is absolutely the best time for a wedding…you might be a “REAL HAM!”
  • Of course, if you MET your fiancé in the flea market at Dayton when she tried to jaw you down on the price of a Hallicrafters HT-37 with a bad power transformer…you might be a “REAL HAM!”

Finally, if you call beers “807s,” money “green stamps,” your house your “home QTH,” your car your “moe-byle,” your base station your “shack,” the FCC “the friendly candy company,” anything a salesman tells you “Bravo Sierra,” the big brouhaha at the last club meeting “a Charlie Foxtrot,” your wife your “XYL,” and your kids “harmonics” …you might be a “REAL HAM!”

Ain’t it fun?

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  • Matt W1MST, Managing Editor