Saturday, December 10, 2016

A Sasquatch of One's Own

by Andrew Ellis


It's hard to visit Southern Oregon without encountering Bigfoot, aka Sasquatch a few times.  This is his home stomping ground, after all.

I joked on Facebook that one is "required by law" to have a Sasquatch cutout in one's yard hereabouts.  An exaggeration, yes, but I did want one of my own:


There are several companies that sell yard silhouettes of one sort or another.  They all work the same way:  You buy a full-sized printed template, trace it with carbon paper onto wood, then cut it out and paint it.

I bought this one from Doug's Woodcrafts and Patterns of Edmonton, Alberta.  He sells dozens of patterns, including sea lions, buffalo, cowboys and ballroom dancers, among others.  Most cost 15-30 dollars, and include both the pattern and the tracing paper.  You just supply the wood and paint.

Mine is from pattern 1-101, a 66" walking Sasquatch.  He also sells 1-102, a standing version.  If I had it to do again, though, I'd probably select DT-103, a larger one that stands a menacing 96" tall.  Next time, maybe.

The pattern and tracing paper can both be used several times.  After doing my own, I did another one for a friend.  This is how it went at our home in Bandon, Oregon.

Most people will choose a 4 foot by 8 foot piece of plywood.  It comes in various thicknesses and grades.  Grade A is the best.  You can buy sheets with different grades on each side, so you're not paying the big bucks for a side that's not seen.

Being even cheaper than that, I used "OSB," Oriented Strand Board, instead.  It's similar to plywood, but uses flakes and odd-shaped pieces instead of smooth panels.  Like plywood, it's glued together and is quite strong.

The first step is to paint the side you're going to cut with white primer.  This protects the wood, but it mainly serves to make the traced lines more visible.  Here's my OSB ready for tracing:

I used masking tape to hold the pattern in place, but none is needed on the carbon paper, which is held in place by the pattern above it.

As seen here, the pattern is wrinkled, but that's from leaving it out in the rain once.  As received it was smooth and pristine.

You carefully trace the pattern, using some kind of stylus.  I like the capped end of a "Sharpie" marker.  It's blunt enough not to tear the paper and leaves a wide line that's easy to follow.

Once the tracing is done, it's time to move outside, because the rest of the project is pretty dusty.  You don't need to be any kind of a skilled carpenter.  Just be careful.

I used an electric jigsaw.  There are different blades for these, for cutting different materials.  A "Finish Carpentry" blade is the best here, because it makes a smooth cut and is easily maneuvered to follow the pattern.  Of course, always wear both eye and ear protection when using power tools.

Here's the 'Squatch about half cut out:


You can see that his rear-most leg is traced, but not yet cut.  That's the jigsaw I used, but any kind is suitable.  You need to use something to support him during the cutting.  I chose two inexpensive wooden sawhorses.  Among other things, one doesn't feel too badly about cutting into them by accident or dripping paint on them.

One of the distinctive things in this pattern is that some outcroppings are curved, while others come to a point.  The jigsaw easily tracks around even fairly-tight curves.  (Though you have to slow down, and the added friction when turning sometimes makes the wood smoke.)  If you have a V-shape that you need to leave, though, it's better to make two separate cuts that meet at the point of the V.  You can't get a sharp corner like that just by twisting the saw.


After cutting, you should sand both sides of the wood and around the edges.  I used an electric "detail sander," which uses 1/4 of a standard sheet of sandpaper and is easy to hold.  It won't fit in the very tightest places, but it gets into most of the nooks and crannies in this pattern.

The final step is painting.  Use whatever color you like, but the traditional one is flat black.  Be sure to use an outdoor-rated paint.  A one-quart can will easily handle more than one silhouette. 

Paint the back side first.  When it's dry, turn 'Squatch over and paint the front.  Last of all, paint around all the edges.  I found that one coat was OK for the back and sides, but covering the white paint on the front took two coats.

Timewise, the tracing took perhaps half an hour, taking my time to get it right.  (Remember to mark where you started so you'll know when you finish!).  Cutting took as much as two hours, and it's best to break it up into a couple of sessions.  I found that making a rough cut around the figure made the precision cutting afterwards easier.

Sanding took perhaps an hour.  I recommend using "100-Grit" paper, a not-fine-but-not-coarse grade.  (Higher numbers are finer. Stores usually carry paper in grits from 40 or so to at least 400.)

Perhaps it's closer to cake mix than to scratch-made-bread, but there's still pleasure to be taken in a project of one's own.

Next up is the traditional glowing red eye for him.  I'll report on that when finished.



Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Germanium Story

by Andrew Ellis, NO6E



The diode detector on my first "crystal set" radio was just that -
a Galena (Lead Sulfide) crystal with a fine "catwhisker" metal contact.  One felt around until one found a good spot where diode action would "detect" AM signals.  It seemed, and it was, remarkably crude.  Still, there was the something-for-nothing appeal of a radio that picked up signals (more or less) without any power other than the signals themselves.

The upgrade from the Galena crystal was to a packaged-in-glass commercial diode.  I used the granddaddy of signal diodes, the 1N34A.  Like most semiconductors of the day, it was made using Germanium.

In the decades that passed, Germanium semiconductors were replaced almost 100% with those made from Silicon.  Silicon was cheaper, more reliable and just all-around better in almost every way.  The 1N34A gave way to the ubiquitous silicon signal diode of today, the glass-enclosed 1N914/1N4148.  In hundred-quantities they're dramatically cheap, well under $.02 each.

Still, there a few places where Germanium diodes are useful, both as radio-frequency detectors and in some intentional-distortion generators used in music processors.  Germanium diodes have a lower forward-voltage drop than Silicon.  Fairness demands, though, that I acknowledge that Shottky (or "Hot-carrier") diodes, typified by the commonly-used 1N5711-series, also offer low forward voltage drops.  They're more expensive than '914's, but only about $.40 in small quantities.

When I decided to build a field-strength meter (a piece of test equipment that shows the relative amount of energy from nearby transmitting antennas), I decided to use two of the old 1N34A diodes at the detector.  How much could they cost, after all?

Somewhere north of $2.00...each.  If you could find them at all.

I checked eBay, my go-to source for things that seem too expensive from regular dealers.  I found an offer of 20 for $2.59, so I bought them.

What's going on?  Is there a worldwide Germanium shortage?  More likely, it just has to do with popularity.  Engineers tend to use the same parts over and over in projects.  The ones they choose may not be the most cutting-edge versions, but they're common.  Commonly-used parts often are "second-sourced," meaning that more than one manufacturer makes them.  That's vitally important when you order parts for your already-designed project and the normal supplier you use suddenly lists availability of one of your parts as, say, "2Q17," meaning "In the second quarter of next year." Chances are you need it much sooner than that.  

So, when you look at, say, a small audio amplifier kit and it uses the hoary LM-386 chip instead of something newer, which would also be cheaper and better, that may be the reason.  At my last job before retirement, I dragged us into using the stereo TDA2822 series amplifier instead of the '386.  Today, the '2822 is listed as "obselete," though still available. The noisy and troublesome '386 series soldiers on.  Even if they don't use the "O-Word," manufacturers often include the ominous phrase "Not Recommended for New Designs" on their data sheets.  The designer ignores such warnings at her/his peril.








Saturday, October 8, 2016

Hamming it up at Jackson County's Fielder Mountain

Fielder Mountain is quite close to my home in Rogue River.  Your GPS will get you there (42.4468, -123.2158) with a starting point at the corner of West Evans Creek Road and Fielder Creek Road.  It's only about a 20 minute drive over a well-maintained BLM gravel road (at least in the Summer), but the road is mostly single-lane and is winding.

If you park near the yellow gate, it's about a mile hike along the road to the peak.

There's a large clearing at the top, along with many trees, which I used to support my wire ham radio antennas.  (Of course, I took everything down and packed it out when done.)


This photo shows my operating position - literally on the ground.  The antennas ascend to the right of the picture, while the "counterpoise" wires extend to the left.  The tiny orange box between them is my "antenna tuner," which matches the load of the antenna to the radio.  The radio itself is the small black box on the ground.

Though not literally in my backyard, it's one of the closest peaks recognized by Summits on the Air (www.sota.org.uk).  It's not one of the tallest peaks, at only 1,147M (3,763 feet) high.  But the walk to the top is still a, well, bracing one.

I was able to make a couple of dozen contacts from the top, including three "Summit-to-Summit" ones with other SOTA operators on other mountaintops (one each in Oregon, Utah and California).

It's a worthwhile visit, only steps from the hurly-burly of Rogue River and its 1200 residents. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

It's a Cataclysm!

"Cataclysm" is my column in the monthly "Catalyst" newsletter I co-edit for our church, Unitarian Universalists of Grants Pass (www.uufgp.org). 

It often deals with ham radio-esque topics.  Here are some recent examples: (Apologies for the not-in-the-right-place pictures - Blogger won't let me do it right!)


Cataclysm for October, 2016
by Andrew Ellis

ETA Approximate”

My ham radio hiking trips have taught me a lot about estimates. When I post an “Alert” of an upcoming trip, I always include “ETA Approximate,” since driving and hiking take as long as they take, not as long as I planned them to take.

One also picks up lessons about certainty and doubt along the way. GPS is never in doubt. Newer models don't say “Recalculating” when you stray from their planned path. They still recalculate; they just don't say so. It's child's play for GPS to get you close to where you're going. But the last part of the itinerary is often little better than the “Here be monsters” on old maps.

When I'm looking for a hilltop, I usually progress from Interstate, to local road, to unpaved road to, well, often no road at all. The GPS is unflappable, nonchalantly ordering me to “Navigate Off-Road,” while indicating a direction that, often as not, asks me to scale a vertical cliff to my destination. The instructions aren't wrong – they just can't be followed.

Often, we proceed through life as if we have a plan and we can follow it. (The axiom among scuba divers is “Plan Your Dive, Dive Your Plan”). But, as one of my favorite movies, “Stripes,” reminds us: “Custer had a plan, too.”

Early in my radio career, a fellow engineer confided to me that “We're all just penciled-in here.” It was, and remains a disturbing truth. What helps me deal with the uncertainties of life is the conviction that my improvisations and course corrections are no better or worse than the plans of those who are more certain that they're right and that they're right on course.




How one earns my wave – or doesn't.

I exercise-walk miles each week, usually along roads. Following safety advice, I walk on the left side of the road. Another way I try to keep myself safe is by waving to drivers. My rule is simple: If you move over to the left even a bit to leave me more room, I'll give you a casual wave. It's a tiny thing, but it acknowledges that the driver has gone out of her/his way to keep me a bit safer, and that I appreciate it. Day after day, I wave to drivers who move over while I move to the left as much as I can as cars approach. I don't rely on them: My pedestrian safety is mostly my own responsibility. The driver makes a mini-swerve; I step onto the shoulder and respond with a mini-wave. It's a tiny human contact, but one that keeps me a skosh safer than I would have been without it. I hope.


****
Cataclysm for September, 2016
By Andrew Ellis, NO6E

One of the reasons I've loved ham radio for fifty years is that it's actually many different hobbies. If the Biathlon is an unlikely pairing of skiing and shooting, “Summits On The Air,” SOTA, pairs hiking and mountain climbing with amateur radio, king of couch potato pastimes.

Founded in 2002, SOTA began in England as an awards program to recognize achievements involving ham radio from mountain tops, promontories and hills. Hundreds of ham operators around the world participate. “Activators” carry small, portable ham radio equipment to one of the designated sites. From there, they make contact with “Chasers.” There are awards for both kinds of participants: Activators earn points toward the coveted “Mountain Goat” award, while Chasers work toward the less-coveted “Shack Sloth” award.

I've done a few activations. It's tricky in Oregon, where the back country is often privately owned and peopled by suspicious folks with firearms. Mostly I confine myself to parks, National Forests and so forth. In theory, one could just drive up a hill, but the spirit of SOTA requires at least some hiking, and stations cannot be connected to vehicles, meaning battery-operated gear is a must.



Here's my setup on a dry run in our Bandon house back yard. A folding camp table supports the gear, while a 20-foot fiberglass fishing pole holds up one end of the wire antennas. (The other end goes to a nearby tree). This is the “deluxe” setup. When pressed, I'll leave the folding chair and table behind and “rough it.”





The black box is a Yaesu FT-817D, a tiny Swiss-Army-Knife of a radio that operates on many bands and in many operating modes. Most of the contacts I make are in Morse code or Single-Sideband (“SSB”) voice.

The yellow handheld VHF radio handles short-range contacts, and the funny thing attached to the clipboard is the “paddle” I use to send Morse. The tiny orange box is an “Antenna tuner,” which matches the antenna to the radio.







The last photo shows the minuscule (for me, at least!) display on the Yaesu, operating on 7.286 megaHertz, the voice part of the ham “40 meter” band.

Sound interesting? Check out SOTA at www.sota.org.uk . If you're thinking about ham radio, you can see me. Morse code is no longer needed to get a ham license. I'd welcome hiking companions on any of my activations. I'm thinking of Table Rock next; or, as we call it: W7O/CS-157, for Oregon>Cascades South>Summit 157.













****


by Andrew Ellis

To be a high-school boy is to live in a world of desires, many of them unrealistic. In 1966, when I was 16, the word “Geek” had not been coined, but my tiny coterie of friends and I were geeks nonetheless. While other boys at Palo Alto High School lusted after muscle cars, my pals and I in the nerdy worlds of ham radio and computers wanted the fancy iron and sheet metal of those fields.
We learned the rudiments of programming on the school district office's IBM 1620, a room-sized, yet idiot (by modern standards) computer. No one thought at the time that anyone would want to own a computer.

But ham radio was different. Until that time, most amateur radio stations consisted of a large, heavy, tube-filled box called a “Receiver,” and a larger, heavier, tube-filled box called a “Transmitter.” Just dawning was the age of the “Transceiver,” a smaller unit that combined both. And the most iconic transceiver was the Collins KWM-2.

In his Cedar Rapids, Iowa factory, Art Collins' company turned out broadcast transmitters, military and aviation radio gear and amateur radio equipment. As primary developers of both the transceiver and of “SSB,” (Single-Sideband) voice transmission, Collins had launched the transceiver revolution with its 1957 KWM-1. In 1959, the KWM-2 arrived on the scene. My pals and I were totally smitten.

Compared to competition of the day, the KWM-2 was wildly expensive. When other transceivers could be had for, say, $400, the Collins was $1,250 ($9,156 in today's dollars). It was a lordly radio, spoken of in hushed tones, and those who owned one were regarded as especially discerning in the otherwise plebeian ham radio world. Only a few thousand were ever built.
The KWM-2 still used tubes, and it was still heavy. It did the same functions as competing equipment, but it did so with great panache. The transmitted audio was so clear and undistorted as to be recognized at once on the air.


Today, the KWM-2 is still the most-iconic single piece of amateur radio equipment ever built. Like a great car from the same period, it offers few of big pluses of modern equipment. The receiver section, in particular, is easily bettered by modern receiver sections of solid-state transceivers that can be bought for a few hundred dollars, such as the Yaesu FT-450D (next page). But like one for the Red Ryder BB gun, those desires of youth never really leave us. Today, a 50-year-old KWM-2 can cost as much as it did new, or even more. Multiple small businesses operate as niche companies which only work on Collins gear of that era. (Collins stopped making amateur radio equipment in the 1980's).


So, when the widow of a Collins collector advertised a KWM-2 on Craigslist, last week, I knew that it offered the possibility of slaking my 50-year thirst to own one of these beauties. Leaving after church Sunday afternoon, I made my way 220 miles or so to Bend, through snowy mountain passes and over slick roads, to examine the radio. A wad of bills hurriedly gathered from multiple ATM's bulged in my wallet.

Sadly, the death of the owner is the most-common reason KWM-2's come up for sale. Some predatory hams gloat over having cheated a new widow out of thousands of dollars worth of equipment for $50 or so. In this case, the woman had consulted her late husband's ham radio buddies, so she knew the value of what she had. I think she was impressed (or horrified) that I would drive all the way from southern Oregon just to examine and (maybe) buy the radio. We were simpatico, and I think we both believed all was going to go smoothly.

The KWM-2 is $750,” she told me. “I already sold that other thing for $150.” Unfortunately, “That other thing” was a Collins PM-2, the power supply that converts AC line voltage to the multiple voltages the KWM-2 needs to operate. I explained, gently, that I could not buy the radio without the mating power supply. (Realistically, I might have found another power supply for sale elsewhere, but that would have increased my cost dramatically.)

Well,” she said, “the fellow that bought it bought a lot of other stuff from my husband's station, too. He's mailing me a check for it, but I don't think he'll be too disappointed if I just return his check.” We discussed it for a few minutes. I wanted to be sure not to pressure her into doing something she didn't want to do. She wanted to sell the radio, and realized, I suppose, that any other potential radio buyer would want the radio's power supply, just as I did. Most poignant for her, probably, was the fact that she would be selling both units for $750, instead of $900.


After careful and respectful discussion, she decided to go ahead and sell me both the KWM-2 and the PM-2 for the original $750 price. We talked on for a few minutes. I caressed the main tuning dial of the radio, and told her, truthfully, that buying it represented the culmination of a yearning I had carried for 50 years. She told me, mistily, that she was glad the old Collins would be going to a good home. Tragically, her husband had bought the radio shortly before his death, and had never lived to use it. Like a 1960's car, my KWM-2 will not outperform a modern radio. But there's still that ineffable something about it, something my 1966 self would still recognize today.




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Monday, September 19, 2016

Summits on the Air

Onion Mountain
September 17, 2016

Summits on the Air is an international program to encourage ham operators to carry portable equipment to the top of hills and mountains, then to try to contact others from there.  It's a slightly-wacky idea, given that ham radio is perhaps the most couch-potato-esque hobby there is.

Each summit is designated by a reference which includes the "Association," "Region" and a unique number.  My choice this week was Onion Mountain in Josephine County Oregon.  To SOTA, the peak is W7O/SC-048, for "Oregon," "South Coast" and the 48th one designated in the region.

It's an old Forest Service fire lookout, which is also the site of several communications sites for state, local and federal government agencies.  It's 10 miles up a gravel road from Grants Pass, Oregon.

To get there, you follow the sign from Riverbank Road:

Then stay on the "main" road, such as it is, until you reach a "T" intersection, where you turn right.  Eventually, you arrive at one of those multi-road forest intersections.  Continue more-or-less straight until you come to this gate:


Note that it doesn't say, "Keep Out." It's only there to keep vehicles out, so continue on foot.  Shortly past the gate, you'll be able to see the site on the left.








The old lookout's walkway and stairs are still serviceable, so I made them my operating position.  You can see one of the antennas I used extending from the railing of the walkway.










Of course, ham radioing is tiring, so sometimes one needs to take a bit of a break.








While I only made a dozen or so contacts, mostly in Morse code, I had a great time.  The weather was spectacular, and so were the views:



Onion Mountain is a fine place for a day trip in Southern Oregon.  As always, follow standard precautions, including telling people where you are going and when you're expected back. Carry water and pay attention to your surroundings.  If your GPS permits, and most do, you can
navigate the driving portion using the peak's coordinates: 42.4545 (N) and -123.6161 (W).

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Rebirth of a website

Rebirth of the Blog!


We still live at Roguefarm, but I'm stealing the website as the destination for my new domain, WWW.NO6E.ORG .  It's my ham radio call sign.  You can email me at no6e@no6e.org.

I've been smitten lately with Summits on the Air (www.sota.org.uk).  It's an activity that gets ham radio operators, usually the most couch-potato-esque people imaginable, to hike to the top of various mountains, hills, promontories and so forth and operate a portable radio station from them.  It sounds bizarre and it is.  SOTA is catching on in the US, but is much bigger in Europe so far.

There are awards for "activating" a particular peak and for contacting people on peaks from one's home.  Those who activate enough can win the coveted Mountain Goat award, while the best "chasers" of people on mountaintops can earn the slightly less prestigious "Shack Sloth" prize.

I'll be posting news and pictures about my activities here.

In the meantime, welcome!