Solar CDX

Fried Power Supply

The original fuse (white tube) after cutting away black heats hrink tubing.

The original fuse (white tube, bottom left) after cutting away black heatshrink tubing.

As a public service message, I feel obliged to share the following nugget of wisdom: before plugging a tower computer into a 220V outlet, reach around to the back of the computer and make sure the input voltage select is 220. Sounds simple, right? This isn’t something you have to think about for most laptops, which have dual voltage power supplies. They are happy plugged into either voltage and the power supply brick just works.

I’m not [arguably, perhaps] an idiot – I was aware of the switch. I just thought that the power outlet was off, but also I didn’t expect to encounter an issue until the computer itself was turned on. Wrong — ATX switching power supplies are always on. When I plugged the computer in 220V, there was a popping sound followed by smoke from the back of the unit. Never a good sign.

I pulled the power supply out, opened it up, and looked around. Nothing was obviously charred. My nose has lousy spatial resolution — it confirmed that something wasn’t right, but couldn’t help me localize the problem. I followed the wiring from the outlet inward. For a cheap supply, I was glad to see some decent capacitors on both live and return wires to ground, and across them. Also, some inductors to quell EMI. Next in line: the fuse. It had blended in because as a safety precaution, it was wrapped in heat-shrink. I cut away the heat shrink to reveal a white tube. I couldn’t see into the fuse, but my continuity tester showed it had blown. There was no fuse holder; the fuse was just soldered in by its leads, so I dutifully unsoldered it.

I looked through the rest of the supply, and it looked fine. The next component in line was an NTC thermistor, and it seemed okay, then the primary transformer, and onward towards the voltage doubler circuits (since the switch was in the 110V configuration at the time it blew). It seemed to good to be true, but I thought I might get away with just replacing the fuse. Having ransacked some other switching power supplies in the past, I did have a 250V 6.3A fuse on hand (which is good, because it would have taken at least a month to order one).

Scorch marks at the location of the former MOV, to the left of the  bridge rectifier, also removed.

Scorch marks at the location of the former MOV, to the left of the bridge rectifier, also removed.

After encasing the fuse in heat-shrink tubing, I stuck the new fuse in, closed up the power supply, wired it back into the computer, and made sure the switch was on the 220 setting this time. I put on my safety goggles and plugged it in. Puff! Another impressive pop and some smoke.

Again, I yanked the supply. Obviously, the problem ran deeper than the fuse. I couldn’t see any failed components, but between various wires and component density, plus copious amounts of sticky glue used to pot the components, it was difficult to get a good look at the whole board. I like to find and fix problems, but I’m also not crazy. I ordered a replacement power supply from New Egg and got to work on a postmortem. At the very least, I figured that I could harvest the inductors and toroids.

When I dug down, I did find some scorch marks near MOVs that had given their lives for the cause. These charred little guys failed short, so no wonder the fuse kept blowing. They were also cloaked in heat-shrink tubing, which made the failure harder to spot.

As I dug through the board, I wondered if the bridge rectifier had also been damaged. So far as I can tell, no — it tested fine. In principle, I think I could have replaced the failed MOVs  and fuse and had a working supply. However, given the layout of the board, I’m not sure I could have gotten easily to the MOVs. Oh well, at least some more parts for the parts bin. I’ll shelf the computer until the new supply comes and see where we go from there.

Two bad fuses, two bad MOVs, and one good rectifier.

Two bad fuses, two bad MOVs, and one good rectifier.

First Big Storm

Friday afternoon, a “moderate tropical cyclone” swept west-to-east across the Island. It was a big enough storm to get a name, Chezda, and I’d been watching it on satellite pictures for a couple days. In the last afternoon, it hit the west coast, bringing rain and wind. This is what it looked like. It’s the swirly cotton thing on the left. The more ominous looking storm on the right is another one, Bansi, that wasn’t a problem for Madagascar, but did affect Ile Rodriques. It is headed southeast, so not so much of a concern.

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Since the picture was taken, the center of Chezda has moved off the east coast of Madagascar, but not before dumping a lot of water yesterday and blowing fiercely overnight. Many low-lying areas were flooded. We’re a couple weeks into the rice harvesting season, and in this area, it looked like only about half the rice had been harvested, so I would guess some crops might have been lost to inundation.

There were a lot of power fluctuations yesterday, but as far as I can tell, no major damage in the local area. The wind died down the the sun came out around ten this morning. I’m pleased to report that aside from a bit of water around the garage door, no water entered the garage. The improvements to drainage happened just in time.

The storm is predicted to continue to move south-east and should miss the populated islands in our region.

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More Garage

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Water in the garage. This is a problem.

In the previous post, I mentioned that our shipment from the US came in several large wood crates, just as the rainy season started. I had a lot of boxes of radio gear, tools, and other items that needed sorting and I wanted to work in the garage, but since the garage is built below ground at the end of a down-sloping driveway, I was worried that the garage floor could not be trusted to remain dry. As the rainy season picked up, I soon found that this concern was justified, as the french drain in front of the garage could not cope with the run-off.

I had a few of the bottom pallets from the shipping crate; each sits about 8 cm above the floor on wood blocks. I moved these to the back of the garage (since the floor slopes towards the front where the drain is) and piled everything on top of them, while I considered my options.

Although it is rainy season, most of the time it is not actually raining. Most of the water in the front of the garage would run out almost immediately, and the floor would often be dry a half hour later. Unfortunately, the receding water would always leave behind a fine red mud, or after drying, dust.

Making some sort of raised flooring seemed like a good idea. Unfortunately, the plywood used in shipping crates is of very poor quality and only about a cm thick. I could walk on it, but it would groan and sag. However, I had a lot of it.

Fine, government-quality plywood.

Fine, government-quality plywood.

I spent the next couple weeks disassembling all of the crates, pulling out the useful two-by lumber. I must have pulled out thousands of nails — most of which I was able to straighten and use again. I remember the day I packed out in Virginia: it was also raining. The moving guys covered the crates in copious amounts of plastic wrap. The corollary is that both the framing lumber and the plywood were chock full of staples. I painstakingly yanked them all because I was paranoid that I might hit them with an electric saw later in this process.

I piled up the lumber, trimmed off bits that were too damaged to be useful, and played a constant game of shifting around unpacked boxes, lumber and tools, to get at the materials I needed while still keeping everything high and dry.

Since the plywood was so thin, I added some reinforcing cross members to the lumber framing and then tossed another layer of plywood on top, laminating it to the existing plywood with some locally purchased wood glue. Between the wood glue and additional nails, the double-thickness plywood made a solid floor. Still a little creaky, but no real give.

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Two of the pallets support a table on the left and a pile of bricks on the right. Note the red stain on the floor, where water had accumulated transiently.

The water never got more than a centimeter or so high in the garage, but I didn’t like the idea of wood blocks sitting in water. This set up has to last four years or so.  I needed some kind of solid, water-resistant material to serve as supports for the wooden feet below the platforms. Not surprisingly, I obtained locally produced bricks. Bricks are very common here — they are produced from rice paddy mud between crops. They are not the best quality bricks as they lack binding materials and fiber; they are just baked mud. They are relatively fragile to shocks, but resilient to compressive force. For my application, they worked fine, and the price is right: 80 ariary each (about three cents a piece).

So, in boosted the existing flooring up, with two bricks under each supporting wood block, and then fabricated some additional flooring so I had covered the rectangular middle portion of the garage. The back of the garage is strangely trapezoidal, so I put that off for a bit.

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A view from the back of the garage looking towards the door (which is down).

I needed a place to work and also some storage, so I made some work benches. I more or less followed a design from a YouTube video for a bench that looked very solid. I already had an Ikea table, which works best at a sitting height, so I made the benches to be used while standing. Like the floors, the benches are made out of wood recovered from the packing crates (although I did top one with some nicer, sanded plywood that I had shipped for that purpose).

Going back to the source of the problem, drainage, I had some workers clean out the drain area at the left end of the grill, above. I hadn’t realized how much silt had collected. They reamed out the pipe downstream as well. I watched the drain during the next heavy storm and was pleased that it had no problem diverting the water as fast as it came.

With less worry about moisture, I decided to install a short carpet in the central area of the garage. The addition of the carpet made it feel much more comfortable. Next came the rolling office chair.

Finally - some storage. All those tiny parts!

Finally – some storage. All those tiny parts!

Finally, I set up the Ikea shelfing and was able to unpack the many boxes of hoarded electronic bits and pieces. I still have some unpacking to do, but I am now able to get to everything: patch cords, adapters, tools, etc., which will let me get going on station and antenna set up.

The first project for the new workspace: construction of an antenna panel to bring coax into the shack through lightning arrestors and antenna switches. Other projects on a near infinite list include finishing the back portion of the garage and installing some storage shelves for larger items, working on the mount for the hex beam antenna, and fabricating some additional antennas.

Setting Up Shop

So far, the most difficult part of setting up an amateur radio station in Madagascar has been not being in Madagascar. Since I cover cancer programs through subsaharan Africa (and sometimes other places), I knew I’d be in for significant amounts of travel, but in the last two months, I feel like I’ve spent more time in the air than on the ground. Unfortunately, I haven’t had much time to arrange licensing or to set up portable stations while on the road, but as I get more familiar with some of the locations, particularly CEPT signatories like South Africa, I’m hoping to combine travel and operating. A longer term goal, though, is to make Madagascar my base of operations.

My major shipment from the US finally arrived in mid-November, after three months in transit, but I didn’t have a chance to dive into boxes until the third week of the month, just before the Thanksgiving holiday. As usual, not everything got sent to the right place: I ended up with some vintage Collins gear that I would much rather have sitting high and dry in a storage warehouse in the US versus transiting the Atlantic in crate and now sitting in tropical Madagascar. Conversely, my old tektronix analogue oscilloscope is in that warehouse, rather than with me. I suppose that just gives me leave to order a Rigol digital scope some time in the next year. Most of the other items that I had meant to ship did arrive, although it took me a while to locate them in boxes inside boxes.

The many boxes of radios, components, antenna bits, etc., piled up in the dining room had to be cleared to make way for the Thanksgiving dinner that we hosted for some other expat families and kids from the American School. The logical place to put the boxes was the garage, which I have had my eye on for a while as a potential workshop. The entrance to the garage is too low to accommodate our car, particularly with the car’s roof rack in place, so I think I am safe in laying claim to the garage, which provides a sizable workspace, has fluorescent lighting, and even has a couple power outlets.

This is after clean-up; initially, the wood was jumbled in a big pile and the blue tool box was hidden underneath in a corner.

This is after clean-up; initially, the wood was jumbled in a big pile and the blue tool box was hidden underneath in a corner.

The only drawback to the garage is that it is located at the lower end of our driveway.  Gutters draining the driveway and the adjoining garden all run towards the garage. There is a drain grate right in front of the garage, so in principle, all the water runs into the drain. In practice, however, the first half meter beyond the garage door is wet after a rain. Not just wet, but sort of muddy, with fine red silt.  I can imagine that this will only get worse as we get further into the rainy season. Some small amount of water also comes in through the ventilation holes at the side and rear, but these holes slope down and outward, and are not really a problem.

When I opened up the garage after getting back to Madagascar, the first thing I saw was piles of wood — the crates left over from the shipping process. I had asked my wife to hang onto the wood because I figured it would be useful for something. It looks like that use will be as flooring, to keep materials high and dry despite the rain. The crates consist about 1.2m x 2.4m x about 1 cm thick panels framed with two-by-fours. The sides that formed the bottom also have about 10 cm risers. I have laid these out of the floor along the sides of the room and that was good enough to keep the boxes off the floor while I figured out what to do next.

The plywood is not really thick enough to be a floor. When I walk on areas that are not directly supported, it sags and creaks ominously. However, I have many more 1.2m x 2.4m and 1.2m square panels, so I think I can fix that by doubling it up. My currently plan is to frame out the whole floor, and nail the whole thing together with double-thickness plywood. I’ll nail on the upper layer in a different direction that the lower layer, which should make it stronger and will also allow me to avoid cracks. It would be nice to have something to put over the plywood — indoor/outdoor carpet? Linoleum? I’ll have to see what is available locally, but for now, I’ll just be sure to wear shoes in there.

IMG_20141127_130806This project is going to require at least one tool that I don’t have — a circular saw to cut up the plywood. There is no difficulty in finding brand name commercial grade circular saws in Madagascar: Maketa, Bosch, and others. I had my eye on a Bosch GKS 190, but the price tag at Mr. Bricolage was high: 793,500 Ariary (at about 2600 Ariary/USD, that’s $305). However, I just found one in South Africa for 1822 Rand (at 10.9 ZAR/USD, about $167). Now…let’s hope I can get this saw back from Cape Town to Mada. I guess I’ll have to check the bag since it has a saw blade in it. Hope the saw does not disappear as the bag transits OR Tambo International Airport in Jberg. I never have felt like I needed to cling wrap a bag before, but I think I’ll make an exception for JNB given its reputation for baggage pilfering. [Note added in proof: I did cling-wrap the suitcase and can report that the saw made it safely back to Madagascar. 60 rand well spent, I think.]

So, the garage floor is project number one, but project number zero will have to be making some saw horses so I have something to saw on top of. That sounds like circular [saw] logic, but it does make sense to me. Some, some of the two-by-fours from the crates will become a pair of saw horses. If I have wood left, I suppose it may go into shelving of some form. I have an Ikea table (shown in the picture, above) that I have used as a soldering station, but I may also opt to add some bench space. If so, I probably won’t use the low grade paneling, but would go for something sturdier and more finished from one of the local brico stores.

Now, as for the station itself, it will be located in the house proper. I’ve had roughly the same station layout in Vienna VA, Brussels, and Fairfax VA. The radios are laid out on a two Ikea desks and a short storage unit, all of which are made from pine, are of the same height, and look well together. I’ve disassembled and reassembled them so many times, I can almost do it in my sleep, which proved useful this time, as the moving folks helped me by consolidating all the bits and pieces of pine furniture into one big pile. Desks, storage unit, shelving, chairs, etc., one nice big pile of pine and hardware. That was fun.

The windows in the room are hinged, and I had planned to remove one entire window and substitute a wood sheet that would be hung on the same hinges. However, in tapping on the wall, I noticed that there is a panel that leads to what used to be an air duct right under the window. I’ve now revised my plan to put a painted wood panel outside that duct with a stainless steel feedthrough plate. Conveniently, the house’s electrical ground is right next to that duct, so I can ground the plate with a very short run of ribbon cable. Incoming antennas will feed through the plate, with patch cords running interiorly up to an inside panel. Inside the shack, another wood panel will support three antenna switches, which will allow me to switch the hex-beam to one of several radios in the shack. When I’m not operating (and weather is not threatening), I’d like to route it to an SDR receiver for CW skimming.

The long term plan for mounting the hexbeam on a telescoping mast anchored in the back yard.

The long term plan for mounting the hexbeam on a telescoping mast anchored in the back yard.

Another switch will select between a few different antennas, none of which are in place yet. Antennas that are a possibility in the future: a G5RV, an 80m dipole, the 80m backyard vertical that I had up in Fairfax, and possibly a dedicated 6m antenna. These feeds would go to the antenna #2 input on rigs that have that feature. Finally, I’d like to feed through 2m and 70cm Lindenblad antennas directly to the TS2000 for satellite work. I have to make those antennas first, though. The TS2000 has independent antenna inputs for those two bands.

I’m not sure which antenna will go up first. The easiest would probably be the G5RV. My only concern about dipoles is that I would need to shoot a line through a supporting tree from my neighbor’s back yard – and I don’t know my neighbor yet. Thanks to high walls around everyone’s property, it’s not easy to meet your neighbors. Knocking on the door and asking to shoot something from their backyard seems like a tall order for our first conversation.

The hex beam is still packed up. I don’t have the telescoping mast from spider beam because it took them so long to ship it that I wasn’t able to carry it back as luggage after my most recent visit to the US. For now, I am considering mounting the antenna temporarily on a support that extends from the house’s chimney. With one guy ring near the top, I think it would have good stability until I manage to get the telescoping mast to Madagascar. For now, I’ll omit the rotor and just aim it generally in the direction of Europe. If I get tired of Europe, I can manually rotate it around towards Asia at some point.

Unless I can find someone else who wants to lug the meter-and-a-half antenna to Madagascar, I probably won’t have a chance to carry it back here until June. When it is time to install the telescoping mast, I anticipate installing a supporting four-by-four beam in concrete behind the house. That beam will support shelves for the rotor and a thrust bearing. The antenna will also be supported by two tiers of guy ropes. At least that’s the plan.

Two additional bands: 6m and 15m

The Madagascar equivalent of the FCC or OFCOM -- this is where radio licenses are issued. The office is about a km from my house.

The Madagascar equivalent of the FCC or OFCOM — this is where radio licenses are issued. The office is about a km from my house.

I am still operating when I can from my porch, using the FT817 and wire antennas; it is a modest operation, but I’ve managed over 200 contacts. By my reckoning, I’ve worked 45 DXCC entities, almost all on 10 and 20 meters. My prime times for operation are in the early morning before I go to work  and in the evening around dinner time. In the morning, 20m is usually open to North America, whereas the evening favors Europe on 10m. I’ve had only a few contacts to the East including Japan and New Zealand, so I have yet to find the optimal times and band to work those areas. Continue reading Two additional bands: 6m and 15m

5R8SV: First week of operation

QRP Station

QRP Station

I’m putting small updates on qrz.com and when I get a bunch, I’ll transfer them to the blog and add some pictures. I’ve set up the QRP station on the back porch, an FT-817 plus a memory keyer that is saving me a lot of work. I am running off SLA batteries, a workhorse 9Ah and two 2Ah batteries for when I’m recharging the 9Ah or when I’m more portable. The matching box end of the LNR 40/20/10 end-fed antenna is in a palm tree about 20 feet up, just next the the porch, and the other end is about 40 feet up, suspended from a tree branch with a water bottle counterweight.

Continue reading 5R8SV: First week of operation

Preparations for Madagascar

I’m sitting at Dulles Airport in Virginia, USA after a mad couple of weeks packing up the house and preparing for the move to Madagascar. In a bit more than a day, I should be on the ground in Madagascar, where I’ll be living for the next two or three years. This seems like a good time to provide a bit of an update.

Screen Shot 2014-08-23 at 4.10.57 PMFirst, I would like to acknowledge the help that I’ve had from a number of hams who have either previously worked from Madagascar, or who live there. My first contact was with Ken AD6KA (former 5R8GQ), who is listed on the ARRL country information page for Madagascar. Ken operated from Madagascar about fifteen years ago, but did not have current contacts with the regulatory authorities there. He did, however, point me in the direction of Phil Whitchurch, G3SWH. Phil is based in the UK, but has operated from Madagascar several times. Phil is also currently QSL Manager for a number of hams operating from Madagascar. Phil in turn introduced me to Albert, 5R8GZ.

Albert was instrumental in obtaining the equivalent of a license and call sign from OMERT (Office Malagasy d’Etudes et de Régulation des Télecommunications). I provided him a number of documents by mail (scans of my passport, visa, US license, etc.), and he did the footwork on the other end. I was very happy to hear that the “SV” callsign was available, since it appeared in both my Belgian (ON9CSV) and US (AI4SV) callsigns, and I had gotten very used to hearing it. The license is specific to equipment named in the request, in this case my Yaesu FT817ND and Elecraft K3. The license is issued for a renewable five year term, with a yearly fee of 90,000 Ariary (about $35 USD). These two units should provide me with flexibility in terms of both portable and fixed operation and frequency coverage from 160m through 70cm.

Most of the station equipment will not arrive for a few months. Even then, I expect that I will only be able to bring equipment online gradually as I unpack it and set it up after work and on weekends. For the immediate future, I am limited to low power operation with the FT817ND, because that is was I was able to fit into my luggage. I realize that this is suboptimal from the perspective of DXers, particularly those with more limited stations, but I was up against logistic constraints.

Museum für Kommunikation

Museum für Kommunikation, Frankfurt, DeutschlandI’m currently on a business trip in Namibia, but on the way here, I had a six hour layover in Frankfurt, which is just enough time to hop the train downtown (S8 or S9 to Hauptewache, about 4.50€, which seemed a bit pricey). From there, it’s a fifteen minute walk through an historic area and then across the Main River to the museum district. Just past the world cultural museum, a few tempting antennae loom over the Museum für Kommunikation.

Those antennas are right above the ham radio station located in the museum, Funkstation DL0DPM. Unfortunately, my plane landed just about the time the station was closing for the day and I wasn’t able to visit the ham station, but I’ll put in on the itinerary for the next time I find myself in Frankfurt.

The permanent collection of the museum is on the lower level, while the upper floors are dedicated to rotating exhibits. Those exhibits were very family-friendly and were labelled in both German and English. Most concerned some aspect of media, although one explored number sequences. My main interest, though was in the permanent collection, which focuses on the PTT service (post telephone and telegraph, not push-to-talk).

One side of the collection is dedicated to the postal system and includes a number of postal wagons and cars, stamps, mailboxes, and so on. Another area focuses on the phone system and includes working demonstrations from several eras, with phones connected to switching racks. When you dial another phone, you can see the mechanical relays in the central exchange spinning and clicking to route the call.

My main interest, of course, was the radio equipment. Their collection does not focus on amateur radio equipment, but on commercial and consumer equipment. They have quite a collection of very early radios, including some developed for telegraphy. Most were commercial units from the 20s onward, including a good collection of war time radios including those in the Volksempfänger series. The radio collection includes some beautifully styled cabinets, both in wood and later materials like bakelite.

A screw mirrorNext to the radio equipment is an exhibit of television equipment, which I found at least as interesting as the radio equipment. In particular, they had an impressive collection of very early mechanical television gear. One item that attracted my attention was a helix composed of many thin, long mirror pieces, arranged like a stair case, with the mirrored surface facing outward. It was mounted on a motor and some other control gearing. This device was descriptively labeled “Spiegelschrauben” (mirror screw). It took me a while to get through museum’s description of the device, as descriptions in this part of the museum were written only in German. The bottom line is that this device provided the raster scan for an early television receiver by the company TeKaDa (from die Süddeutsche Telefon- Apparate-, Kabel- und Drahtwerke A.G — which through a series of corporate mergers and acquisitions eventually was acquired by AT&T, now Lucent Technologies). At the time, work was also progressing on cathode ray tubes, but it was difficult to manufacture tubes with a large surface area and to produce as bright an image on a CRT. Peter Yanczer’s website has a good description.  The museum has a number of other early television devices including parts from a Nipkow disc system and Vladimir Zworkin’s iconoscope.

A significant part of the display is given over to telegraphy, both cable and radio. A full high-power spark gap station set into a luxurious wooden desk with porcelain insulators, bright copper coils and brass fittings was a real work of art. However, I did note that the key was not far from some very high voltage junctions (for that matter, the contacts on the key itself probably had a few hundred volts running through them. Operator, beware). Of course, there were obligatory displays on Marconi and the Titanic. A lot of the exhibit was given over to commercial telegraphy, both for railway and general communication. Aside from keys, thumpers, and ticker tape units, there were  a number of inventions that would either take telegraph key or keyboard input and transmit a message along a wire. These were not quite teletypes; the message would display letter by letter, usually with a mechanical pointer.

swr van

On the way to the museum, I passed an “SWR” van.

Extending from the telegraph exhibit were collections on radio and landline teletype as well as facsimile machines. One corner is also devoted to the enigma machines of World War II, which includes mention of the work done at Bletchley Park. I had expected to find some Feld Hellscreiber equipment, but I did not see one in the museum’s collection.

The museum is well worth the 3€ price of admission, and if I’m in town again earlier in the day, I’d like to stop in on the amateur station.

As for Namibia, this conference came up quickly. I did make an attempt to contact some hams in Namibia and their IARU affiliate, but was unsuccessful. I’m sure I’ll be back here at some point and with more lead time, so hopefully I’ll get on the air on the next trip.

 

Field Day 2014

jack_cw_tentThis may be my last region two field day for a while, as plans are rapidly coming together for the move to Madagascar in August. I’m not writing off the possibility of field day next year as I know that I’ll be stateside in June for the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting in early June, and there are some other meetings during the month that could reasonably keep me here. Also, I might throw in a bit of leave time since I’ll probably be wiped out after field day and want a day or two to cool off before heading back to Antananarivo.  In any event, this was a good chance to shake down some of the equipment that I will be bringing with me, particularly the hexbeam antenna from K4KIO.

As usual, field day planning started far in advance of the event. This year’s field day czar, Regis KF4PIY introduced a few innovations into this year’s FD, the most visible of which was tighter clustering of the stations. In the past, we spread over a large field near the entrance to Burke Lake Park, with some of the stations “down the hill” and some up. Having been “down the hill”, I can attest to the perception that it is better to be “up the hill” both from an antenna perspective and in terms of being nearer to the food and bulk of the social gathering. The obvious concern was that tighter clustering would lead to more interference. However, after a few antenna pow-wows, the band captains were happy the proposed layout and our RF gurus were reasonably confident that it would all work.

Equipment stacked up and awaiting transport.

Equipment stacked up and awaiting transport.

As for the last three years, I was band captain for the non-40m CW station. Most of the equipment that went to field day had gone the previous year. The main rig was the Elecraft K3 with 200 and 450 Hz filters, my main CW rig at home. I brought along the microphone just in case, and that turned out to have been fortuitous, as we had plenty of opportunity to jump on bands that other stations were not working, scoring the only voice contacts for six and ten meters. I gathered the equipment over the course of a few days and queued it up in the front hall. The day before field day, it all got loaded into the car and carted out to Burke Lake Park. I had considered staying out at the park that night and did pitch a tent, but so many others overnighted at the park that I decided a good night’s rest in my own bed would be the smarter decision.

Essentially all of the antennas were pitched on the afternoon before field day including the hex beam. Leon NT8B had purchased an AB577 mast system at one of the winter hamfests in the area and we decided to combine it and the hex beam. Despite being the first deployment of both pieces of equipment, it went smoothly. The AB577 is an intimidating piece of gear; it is repurposed military gear and looks it. It is painted some official shade of matte olive drab and the five foot sections come in a rack that looks like a portable rocket launcher.

Jacob KK4WJA cranks up the AB577

Jacob KK4WJA cranks up the AB577

The rack itself becomes the bottom portion of the antenna and sections are fed into it and cranked up into position, with a joining clamp added between each section. The diameter of these sections is about five or six inches, but the sections themselves are much lighter than they appear; they can be easily lifted by one person. An adapter piece goes on the top, and its outer diameter is about two and quarter inches.

We decided to set up the mast at 45 feet, which required three layers of guying, with guys in three directions at each level. Cables, stakes, and clamps to tighten the lines are all part of the AB577 kit. The lines are all attached at the start, but do not play a significant role until the mast is up fifteen or twenty feet.

When we got the first couple sections of the mast in place, it was time to add the antenna. The hexbeam comes in an unexpectedly small box, about five feet long corresponding to the length of the longest spreader section. Each spreader consists of three telescoping fiberglass segments. Loops to retain the wire elements are already in place on these segments.

In addition to the long box that contains the spreaders and central support column, a smaller box also showed up at my door. This box contained the base plate which anchors all of the spreaders and the central column and when installed sits on top of the supporting mast. I had ordered elements for all possible bands, so 6, 10, 12, 15, 17, and 20 meters. The wires for these bands were also in the box, as were support strings, ferrite rings, heat shrink and instructions. The ferrite rings must be ordered according to the intended feed line, in my case RG213. The rings go over the coax near the feed point and are held in place with the shrink wrap. These ferrites function as a choke and keep RF off the feed line.  Since 12 and 17 meters are not included in field day, I left them out of the set up this time.

hexbeam1

Items in the accessory box: wire elements, strings, and the central hub.

Spreader segments and the central column.

Spreader segments and the central column.

Many hands made quick work of putting the hex beam together. Once we had read the instructions, it took less than fifteen minutes from crate to full assembly. It really is a dead simple antenna to put together because all of the attachment points are already set and the wires are cut to exactly the right length. For someone who never had a store-bought antenna before, this seemed almost like cheating, but I reminded myself that the next time I’d be doing this, I would be far away from the club and likely wouldn’t have as many helping hands.

Bob connects a support string to the central hub while Thor stabilizes the antenna.

Bob connects a support string to the central hub while Thor stabilizes the antenna.

John holds the antenna during rigging of the band-specific wires.

John holds the antenna during rigging of the band-specific wires.

We did run into one snag: the outer diameter of the support mast was about an inch wider than the than the flange on the antenna base plate. The sun was already low on the horizon at this point, but we were eager to find a solution that evening. I made a quick trip to Home Depot and picked up a two foot piece of one-inch black pipe, which is actually about 1 and quarter inches outer diameter. I also grabbed a bunch of U-clamps. Putting the whole thing together additionally involved a bunch of duct tape and two tent stakes that were hammered into shape as adapters.

Members working on finding a mounting solution for the hex beam.

Members working on finding a mounting solution for the hex beam.

By the time the sun set, we were convinced that our adapter was rigid. We set the hex beam down on the grass for the evening rather than attempt to attach it to the mast and raise it in suboptimal lighting.

The next morning, we were able to hand the antenna up to members on a ladder. They tightened the hex bolts on the hex beam’s flange, and the antenna stayed level. Additional sections of the AB577 were then added, and the antenna climbed skyward in five foot increments. Around twenty feet up, the guy lines began to have more and more importance. We had minders on each of the guy lines as well as spotters to assure that the tower was staying vertical in all planes. When the antenna was finally in position, the clamps on the end of each guy line were tightened.

ant_in_place

Finally, the antenna reached 45 feet up, plus a bit for the extension.  A quick check at 5W verified that the antenna was working, with responses up and down the east coast.   An 80m dipole (the same one used in the Indiana QSO Party last year) was also erected to cover that band.

After the antennas were in place, the rest of the station was set up, based on the Elecraft K3 transceiver, N1MM running on a laptop, and trusty Bencher paddles.

the_setup

The station remained in continuous operation from the start until the end of Field Day 2014, concentrating on 20m during the day and 80m in the evening and early morning. However, since we did not have a dedicated VHF station this year, on the morning of day two, we quickly ran the band on both voice and CW, chalking up about 10 local contacts. We also ran 10  meters when it was open. We started on voice and had a good run, but conditions were fading by the time we got to CW, so ironically, we made more contacts on voice than CW. We also had a chance to work on 15 meters for a while on day one, when the other CW station was doing good business on 40m. Although 15m and 40m are harmonically related, simultaneous operation did not result in interference.

Band mode qsos
3.5 cw 278
3.5 ssb 240
7 cw 718
7 ssb 676
14 cw 542
14 ssb 467
21 cw 151
21 ssb 19
28 cw 19
28 ssb 50
50 cw 3
50 ssb 7

 

A major difference from last year is that all four stations remained on the air around the clock; this is strongly reflected in our score for this year, which broke 10,000.

John K3US concentrates on code in the wee hours of the morning.

John K3US concentrates on code in the wee hours of the morning.

French IF Competition: 2012-2013

ifcomp2013_logoFirst, some general comments. Since the French mini-comp was not held last year, the four games submitted represent two years of production, 2012-2013.  Although my French is not as good as it might be having lived a couple years in the francophone part of Belgium, I enjoyed playing through the games. The limited domain for word choice and grammatical constraints of the parser worked to my advantage.

There were two themes for this mini-comp, Africa and Female Protagonists. Authors could implement either one in whatever way they thought fit. Three went for Female Protagonist, and one for both themes (well, a female Zebra counts, right?).

Also, somehow, in downloading the games for the competition, I also grabbed “Ma princesse adorée”, by Hugo “Mule Hollandaise” Labrande, which doesn’t fit either of these categories. I think it might have been incorrectly linked to an article that pointed to the contest, or perhaps I just clicked on the wrong spot; in any event, I enjoyed playing it as well, and include a review at the end of this entry.

I will make a few general and non-spoilery observations about these works. First, it is notable that two of the games did not adopt the standard person and tense: Trac is set in the present tense, but third person. In playing that game, I noted that there was still a me/you axis between the parser (“I’m not familiar with that verb”) and the player (“Do you want to play again?”). Noir d’encre employs first person and past tense, which must have involved some significant effort in modifying the parser responses. The only quibble I have with that arrangement is that –and I don’t think it’s a spoiler for this horror genre story– some of the outcomes involve the presumed death of the main character. Who, then, is recounting the story?

Second, all of these games seem to be serious works in the sense that they were not just dashed off and sent into the competition. All of them seem to have been thoroughly proofed (although there could, I suppose, be huge errors in the French, to which I might be oblivious) and beta-tested for playability.

Third, aside from Source de Zig, which is a lighter work, I am struck by the amount of text in these text adventures. In Life on Mars, a lot of writing went into creating the emails that provide a solid backstory. In the other works, it seems to me that the amount of detail in descriptions and in responses to player actions is more complete than the more telegraphic style found in many English language works.

Finally, if I’m reading the headers correctly, Life on Mars and La Source de Zig are written in I6, which may be a reflection of the suitability of I7 for developing code in languages other than English.

From here out, there be spoilers…

Continue reading French IF Competition: 2012-2013