Monday, September 25, 2017

Like Contacting Marconi
by Andrew Ellis, NO6E

Until the computer age, most communication modes used by ham radio operators had been around for quite a while. SSB (“Single Sideband) voice was one of the more recent ones, first aired around 1947. (Though I later had the pleasure of operating the station that did it, the Stanford University Radio Club's W6YX.)

But computers changed everything, as they have in so many places in our lives. Time was that ham operators would pride themselves on their ability to hear signals barely above the noise level. Computers, though, can hear signals well below the noise. The first really popular digital mode was probably Peter Martinez' PSK-31, which appeared in 1989.

Ham radio is not a totally blue-collar hobby, but its fair to say that most hams one meets on the air are more likely to be strictly hobbyists or technician-level professionals (like myself) than they are to be formally-trained engineers or physicists, and those are the skills needed to develop digital communications modes.

If the average ham was a weekend duffer on the golf course, Joe Tyler, K1JT would be Sam Snead, Tiger Woods or whomever you'd choose instead. A Nobel-Prize-winning physicist, Joe is now Emeritus Distinguished Joseph S. McDonnell Professor of Physics at Princeton University.  (Let's see: Who was that other Princeton physics guy?  Oh, yeah: Albert Einstein).

Over the years, Joe has developed a number of computer ham radio communications modes, each aimed at a particular sub-hobby in the amateur radio world. For many years, the best-known ones were the WSJT (for “Weak-Signal Joe Tyler) modes used in VHF and moonbounce operations.

In 2017, though, Joe stunned the ham radio world with a new mode, FT8. Named for Joe and co-developer Steve Franke, W9AN, FT8 is a narrowband mode for computer-to-computer communications. Like earlier “Soundcard modes,” FT8 uses the power of computer audio cards to do the digital signal processing (DSP) heavy lifting. No fancy hardware is needed – just a regular SSB transceiver, a computer with a sound card and a simple audio interface.

Though only released in Beta test in July, FT8 quickly skyrocketed in public acceptance. It's not quite as sensitive as some of the other digital modes, but, importantly, it runs four times faster. Most digital modes rely on a rigid plan of “turns,” where each station sends and receives in alternative time periods. Most of the earlier modes used one minute cycles – you either transmitted during even minutes and listened during odd ones, or vice-versa.

FT8 changed the cycle time from a minute to 15 seconds. In FT8, you either transmit from :00 to :15 and :30 to :45 seconds past each minute and listen from :15 to :30 and :45 to :60, or the opposite. Called “Even” and “Odd” time slots, both are equally valid. The result is that contacts in FT8 can take place in a minute or so, as opposed to three minutes or so for a similar mode like JT9.

I've been fiddling with FT8 since July. So far, I've contacted nearly 300 unique stations, a remarkably fast start for a new communications mode in ham radio.

Today, though, was a landmark day for me:

This screenshot shows my contact with Joe, K1JT, himself! It's no exaggeration to say that this was like contacting Marconi in Morse code! I missed O.G. Villard on SSB and Edwin Armstrong on FM, but I got Joe.

Stations from rare locations are besieged by many operators calling them for a contact, and the same applies to “Ham radio royalty” like Joe. He politely asked callers OTHERS QRX, (“Please stand by”) until he finished his present contact. Most did, but some kept calling, adding to the chaos on the frequency.

Without getting too technical, I made the contact using FT8's “Split frequency” mode. This is common in “pileups” on other operating modes, and it helps on FT8, also. The FT8 program displays the audio frequencies sent and received between the computer and the radio. Most of the time, they're the same. But if one unchecks the LOCK FREQUENCY box, one can send and receive on different frequencies. That makes it easier for the “rare” station to hear you, since you're not on the same frequency as the rest of the howling mob.

Look at the yellow line where I called Joe: “K1JT NO6E CN73.” My transmit audio frequency was 1989 Hertz. But he responded to me (Red line “NO6E K1JT -07”) on 1961 Hertz. Now, 28 Hertz isn't much of a difference. It's almost exactly the difference between the musical pitches “A-natural” (440 Hz.) and “A-Sharp" (466 Hz.). As a percentage of frequency, it's much less, around 1%. But that's plenty of difference for a computer sound card.

FT8 has had the quickest adoption of any new amateur radio mode, by far. If you haven't tried it, you really owe it to yourself. For stations with less-than-great equipment and antennas, FT8 provides a new universe of contacts. I'll see you there!

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Pissing Blood and the Placebo Effect

Andrew Ellis NO6E

“Pissing Blood” is often used figuratively, to indicate great anger or upset. Taken literally, though, it's nothing to be envied.

In 2008, after a diagnosis of prostate cancer, I had both a surgical prostatectomy and adjuvent (“helper”) radiation treatment to treat the cancer. I remain glad that I had both.

The combination of surgery and radiation left my nether region a scarred and radiation-blasted landscape. (Even adjuvent radiation is at a dose that would be fatal if it were sent to the whole body). One of the annoying complications: After a firm bowel movement, my next urination would start with some blood, then taper into normal straw-colored pee. A few years back, a cystoscopy (where a camera is threaded up through one's penis) heat-sealed a few of the bleeding blood vessels. It worked fine. The remaining episodic bleeding was no big deal.

Early in 2017, I volunteered for the COSMOS study, which aims to find out whether taking cocoa supplements and/or multivitamins could prolong life. It's a valuable study, run by Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital, and it's still going on. If you're interested in volunteering, check out their website, .

When you enter the study, they send you the study medications, conveniently blister-packed for each month:

As with any reputable study, you don't know if you're receiving the study medication or a placebo, an inactive capsule. In this case, they're studying both the (white) multivitamin tablets and the (orange) cocoa supplements. (The cocoa supplement tablets are more powerful than one would get by, say, eating a few chocolate bars each day). Part of the agreement you make with the researchers is NOT to take either cocoa supplements or multivitamins except for those they provide you. Presumably, the study participants are divided into four groups, each receiving either real or placebo cocoa and real or placebo multivitamins.

I started on the COSMOS study in March, 2017.

In June, I started to notice that my usual episodic blood-in-the-pee was becoming a constant instead.

On our July cruise from Fiji to Tahiti, I spend most of the time eating, diving...and bleeding. Phooey.

As a typical male patient, I would have just continued as things were, but spouse Deborah was sufficiently worried that she insisted I make a urologist appointment after we returned.

A funny story: One of my classmates in the cruise ship's “bunny-slope” SCUBA class was a urologist from New York state. (I didn't discuss any of this with him, figuring that it was, after all, his vacation, too.) Anyway, we surfaced from our second dive, which had gone down 40 feet or so. When you dive, you equalize the pressure in your ears by pinching your nostrils shut and blowing against them. That forces air up the eustachian tubes to the inner ear, where it balances the pressure on the outside of the eardrum from the water.

Anyway, I had perhaps tried to equalize a little to vigorously. When we surfaced, our teacher told me that I was bleeding from the nose a bit, and that I should rinse off my face and mask. It was no big deal. But the urologist made a typical medico comment: “As we doctors say, 'All bleeding stops...eventually.'” True enough, but I was hoping mine would end sometime before my death!

My previous cystoscopy was, let's say, not my favorite thing. The doctor explained that he had done most of the lesions, but left a few that were very near the mouth of the bladder. It's risky to poke around there, because it can leave the patient incontinent. (I often joke about the standard question “Do you wake up at night to go pee?” by answering “Well, I hope so!”)

Again as a typical male patient, I cast about for an alternative to the cystoscopy. I knew that cocoa is sometimes considered a “bladder irritant.” Having little to lose, I decided to stop taking the COSMOS meds for a few days to see if the bleeding stopped.

It did.

Four days into the hiatus, the bleeding went back to its episodic state, and has remained there. I emailed the COSMOS people, telling them that I had to withdraw from the study because of a medical complication.

Here's where it gets interesting:

The COSMOS people were very understanding. Since they had an obligation to me as a patient and since I was no longer in the study, they were free to tell me which group I'd been in.

I was in the placebo group.

In other words, I hadn't been taking cocoa supplements at all.

So...why was I bleeding? The standard explanation is the “Placebo Effect:” I thought I was taking the cocoa, and I knew of cocoa's reputation as a bladder irritant (COSMOS had asked about it in one of the questionnaires I filled out). So my body behaved as if I was getting the cocoa even though I wasn't.

The bleeding was real enough. The end of the bleeding was real enough, too. So, was it all just placebo effect? I felt like Dorothy, finding out that Oz had all been a dream.

It also seemed vaguely insulting, somehow: I'm a somewhat intellectual guy and a fairly knowledgeable medical patient. So, isn't placebo effect supposed to happen to those with a near-superstitious, talismanic faith in medication?

I don't know. What I do know is that I'm grateful that I'm not bleeding (well, not much) any more. I hope the COSMOS study finds good science that will tell us whether cocoa supplements and multivitamins make us live longer or not.

They'll just have to do it without me.

August, 2017

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Treasures of the SEAPAC Flea Market

By Andrew Ellis, NO6E

One of the joys of any hamfest is the flea market, where
people gather to buy, sell, and lie about radio and other equipment.  As the largest hamfest in the northwest, SEAPAC has an exceptional flea market, divided between those who want to sell only on Saturday and the masochists who want to do business on Sunday, too.

A general observation:  It appeared to me that the high-end classic radios of the 1970's and 1980's, even the venerable Collins models, were softening in price this year.  It may be that the market for them is aging, but I think another reason is that they suffer more and more in comparison to "Modern" equipment, especially in the age of digital signal processing ("DSP") gear.

The skilled flea market buyer waits until near the end of day, when sellers begin to remember their spouse saying "Just don't bring that junk back home!" and reduce their prices.  This year, I bought three vintage items.

1. The Vintage Motorola

This vintage AM radio by Motorola dates back almost to their transition from the company's original name, Galvin.  It's an "All-American Five" design, a line of radios using 5 vacuum tubes that was popular from the 1940's into the 1960's.

The AA5 is a "transformerless" design, meaning that one side of the AC line is connected directly to the chassis of the radio.  It saved manufacturing costs, but it also meant that you stood a 50-50 chance of a nasty shock if you touched any of the metal parts connected to the chassis, like the screws on the bottom and back.

The cardboard back panel includes a loop antenna.  With typical marketing pizzazz, Motorola called it the "Aero-Vane High Efficiency Loop.  

This version actually uses 6-tubes, but maintains the disadvantages of 5-tube radios.  An early version, it uses large "Octal" (8-pin base) tubes.  Later versions used "Miniature" tubes of 7 or 9 pins.

As an old broadcast engineer, I have a fondness for old AM radios.  I'm hoping to get advice from  pal Karen Rogers on how to deal with the case.  It's in need of some refinishing. And I'll certainly run in through an "isolation transformer" that avoids "Hot Chassis Disease."

2. The Hewlett-Packard

Not a radio at all, but a piece of test equipment, the Hewlett-Packard 400C is a Vacuum-Tube Voltmeter ("VTVM"), which uses a tube amplifier to measure AC voltages.  

The 400C, proudly built on Page Mill Road in my old home town of Palo Alto, replaced the earlier 400A model in 1948, making it the rare piece of (apparently) working electronic gear older than I am.

This buy was, literally, free, one of the victims of the "Don't bring it back HERE" syndrome on Sunday afternoon.
It has two serious problems - a broken meter glass and a cut-off power cord, but I hope to fix both.

I really have no conceivable use for the thing, but I love it for its home-town ties and beautiful build quality, including real engraved labels.

3. The Heathkit HW-7

Just because the Rolling Stones had a song called "Paint It, Black" does not make that an automatic good idea. Made by the beloved Heathkit company in the 1970's, the HW-7 was lovely in its original green, which you can see inside the case.

The HW-7 was Heathkit's first "QRP" ("Low-Powered") ham transceiver.  It operated in CW (Morse code) only on only three bands.  The receiver was a "Direct-Conversion" design, simpler but much less capable than the dominant "Superheterodyne" design of the day. 

DC receivers had several notable defects.  They were subject to interference from nearby AM broadcast transmitters, and "nearby" meant "Up to several tens of miles."  They also had poor selectively, meaning that a received signal could be heard TWICE as you tuned through it.  One was signal itself, the other the "image" of it.  Choose the image, and you'd respond on the wrong frequency.

Not satisfied with these deficiencies, Heath saddled the HW-7 with another by using a MOSFET ("Metal-Oxide- Silicon Field-Effect-Transistor") design that responded to the square of the incoming signal level rather than a multiple of it.  That made it inherently non-linear, the worst accusation one could make of a receiver.

Heath ham transceivers large and small used the the "HW" prefix in their model numbers, which led to their being referred to as "Hot Water" radios, that being what the user was in when using one, I guess.

The fact that the HW-7 was quickly succeeded by the HW-8 and HW-9 is a testament to its weaknesses.

For all that, the HW-7 is a charming little radio, one of the very first QRP commercial ones.  I may consider some modifications to improve it, though doing so is analogous to putting a small-block V-8 in a 1956 Nash. 

I'll have to figure out what the perforated-board addition shown in the inside picture is.  It's no accident that hams often translate "Modified" as "Molested." The 4-pin "Jones" plug on the rear panel attached to it is not original, either.

Here's the original appearance of the HW-7.  Better? Oh, yeah.

The takeaway: Don't throw those old radios in the trash! Some fool will actually want them.

But don't paint them black, either.

June 6, 2017

Saturday, June 3, 2017

More Notes on SEAPAC

I've been coming to SEAPAC for a few years now. It's put on by a dedicated bunch of volunteers from several Oregon ham radio clubs.  They usually have a couple of thousand people show up. It's held in Seaside, a picturesque, sort of honky-tonkish old resort town on the Northern Oregon Coast.

Now that my presentation is done, I've been hitting the flea market.  So far, I've bough an ancient Motorola AM radio in a wooden case I hope to refinish.  Also, an almost-equally-ancient piece of test equipment, a James M. Millen "Grid Dip Meter."  Its used to determine the resonant frequency of tuned circuits.  That's it for now, though I'm planning a second run through the flea market during the closing hours, when "My wife told me not to bring any of this stuff back, no matter what" leads (sometimes) to deep discounting.

"Summits on the Air, in Hiking Boots or Bathrobe" - Not a total failure, anyway.

Today was my presentation at SEAPAC, the Northwestern Division hamfest of the American Radio Relay League.

I don't mind tellin' ya, I was nervous; first that I might screw up and second, that no one would show up to hear it.

As it happened, things worked out pretty well. The 50-seat room was SRO, and no one threw vegetables, which I count as a success.

I'd been assigned a less-than-desirable time, 10 AM on Saturday.  Usually, people look over the flea market and exhibitor booths, then seek out a seminar to sit down and rest.  Still, even 20 minutes before the scheduled start, the turnout was looking at least a bit hopeful.

The room I'd been assigned seated 50, and I was concerned that I wouldn't fill it.  No need, though, as by 10 AM it was SRO!

I asked an attendee to take a picture of my terrified self:

Since the seminar title included hiking boots and bathrobe, I figured I'd wear both.  It's not common that presenters at ham radio conventions wear costume, but it's fun!

Beyond the terror that I'd screw up or that no one would show up, the next terror was that the technology would let me down.  It did, in a small way: It turned out that there was no input to the room PA, so I had to play the "Gathering Music" for the talk on my tablet, which wasn't very loud.  
The music was "The Proposal/The Night Was Alive With a Thousand Voices," one of the few songs celebrating radio telegraphy. It's from 1997's "Titanic - A New Musical," and half of the duet is Martin Moran, playing Titanic wireless operator Harold Bride. It's a sweet love song to Morse code.

When one does a presentation based on Microsoft PowerPoint (or, as in this case, it's open-source equivalent, Apache Open Office Presentation), the worries are that the "Presenter," a little remote mouse thingy or the projector won't work. They both did.

I had rehearsed the talk lotsa times, and it was fortunate: There was no podium, so I couldn't refer to my notes easily.  That meant I had to stroll around and speak extempore, which turned out to be better than sticking to the copy anyway.

There were quite a few questions, intelligent ones that showed people were actually listening.  No vegetables were thrown, so that makes the seminar a complete success.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Hanging Dr. Fong

Hanging Dr. Fong

By Andrew Ellis, NO6E

Long before WB6IQN's latest article, “A Tri-Band Antenna Without Radials For 2 Meters, 1.25 Meters and 70 Centimeters” in the March, 2017 issue of QST, the remarkable Dr. Edison Fong has been designing inexpensive and well-performing VHF and UHF antennas for ham operators. His DBJ-2 , a roll-up dual bander for 144/440 mHz appeared in the March 2007 issue, and the venerable DBJ-1, the subject of this article, dates all the way back to QST of February, 2003.

Ed's antennas are easy enough to build, and he always shares all the dimensions for those who want to construct them on their own. But tuning the antennas is best done with a network analyzer, which most of us don't have. As an alternative, Ed has some of his graduate students at the University of California Santa Cruz Silicon Valley campus build the antennas, which he sells at very reasonable prices from his website . Proceeds of the sale go to support the work of his students.

Ed is an old friend from my SF bay area days. He is whip-smart technically, but kind and generous with his time and efforts. (His antennas are patented, but he allows hams to build them for their own use). He is a wonderful individual in every way.

I own several DBJ-1's, which are available in both amateur radio (146/446 mHz) and commercial (152/457 mHz) versions. The antennas ship with everything except the PVC pipe to house them, and finding the right “Schedule 200” PVC can be tricky. The much-more-common “Schedule 40” PVC is not rf-transparent enough for the job.

Many of us would like to have large steel towers to support our antennas, but, like network analyzers, few of us have them sitting around. Trees, though, are much more common. After running a DBJ-1 on the back deck of my home for some time, it occurred to me that it could be hung from a tree, as wire antennas are.

An early DBJ-1 iteration at NO6E broke when the 20' PVC mast supporting it (not recommended!) toppled over. So, while the antenna could certainly be mounted to a tree, it was not quite sturdy enough on its own to survive long there.

My solution was to cable-tie the antenna to a piece of “one-by-two” lumber to provide a convenient hanging point, cable strain relief and stiffening:

The board is ordinary pine 1x2, painted with white primer for waterproofing and to match the color of the DBJ-1. (All the Schedule 200 pipe I've found has been white).

Since the antenna is around 5 feet long, I used a 6 foot piece of wood. Cable ties (black for better UV resistance) secure the antenna to the board. Note that the end caps on the pipe are slightly larger diameter than the pipe itself, so don't overtighten the ties immediately adjacent to the caps. (If you buy the antenna kit, Ed supplies both caps, one with the coax connector pre-mounted).

At the top of the board, a 3/8” (9 mm) hole allows me to attach the rope support. For the support itself, I use parachute cord ("Paracord"), which will support a couple of hundred pounds and is inexpensive, especially in large spools

Cable ties are spaced every 18” (45 cm) or so. At the bottom, connect your feedline before attaching the antenna to the board and weatherproof the connection with your choice of tape, sealant or whatever.

Add a couple of additional cable ties below the antenna to secure the feedline to the board. This is especially important when one is hanging a fair length of coax off the antenna, since coax connectors do not provide strain relief. The ties support the cable:

The last step is hoisting the antenna into place. I chose a long-leaf maple near the rear deck of our house. Here's the assembly ready for hoisting:

When fully lifted, the antenna is perhaps 40' (12m) up in the tree:

It won't come a shock to readers that hams are a persnickety lot. In anticipation of objections and questions, I've prepared a few replies:

Q: How do you know that the pine is rf-transparent?
A: I don't, and it likely isn't. The antenna works a lot better than it did lower down, though.

Q: And the tree? Doesn't it absorb some of the rf?
A: I'm sure it does.

Q: Won't the cable ties deteriorate in time and need to be replaced?
A: Yup.

Q: How the, uh, heck, did you get the paracord over the tree branch for hoisting?
A: With a tennis ball cannon. Powered by flammable hairspray, these probably-not-too-safe things will toss a tennis ball, trailing, say, 15 pound (7 kg) test fishing line behind it, hundreds of feet. Once the fishing line is over the tree branch, tie the paracord to it and pull it back.

Q: Do you vouch for the safety of those launchers?
A: Absolutely not. I don't recommend using one. If you choose to, you're on your own.

Q: What's that body of water in a couple of the pictures?
A: Evans Creek, in Rogue River, Oregon.

Q: Is Dr. Fong paying you or asking you to write this?
A: No. He doesn't know about it.

For me, amateur radio is about making do. Sometimes, your work will be 100% mil-spec impeccable. Mine never is. The idea is to have fun, and I do. I always ask myself, “How good does this NEED to be?”

Saturday, April 8, 2017

JT65-HF: Magic?

The Magic of JT65-HF

By Andrew Ellis

I've spent the past few days playing with a new (to me) amateur radio data mode.  It's called JT65-HF, honoring the dean of digital mode creation, Joe Taylor, W1JT. The -HF variant is by Joe Large, W6CQZ.

Unlike some kinds of internet-linked communication, it's strictly radio:  From my transmitter through my antenna to your antenna and your receiver, and vice-versa.

It's what hams call a "Sound card" mode, meaning that it uses audio to connect your computer and radio.  That lets the PC's built-in, powerful Digital Signal Processing ("DSP") work its magic.  What magic?  Well, for one thing, a dozen or so JT65-HF conversations can go on in the spectrum space of one ordinary ("SSB" - for Single Side Band) voice contact. For another, we're used to thinking that signals must be above the noise to be discernible.  Not so here: JT65-HF digs out signals well below the noise, indeed, signals that one cannot hear by ear at all.

What's interesting, and a bit unnerving, though is how easy it is to make contacts.  The power of DSP and a hyper-rigid set of operating procedures means that even "LPCA" ("Low Power / Crummy Antenna") stations like mine can make worldwide contacts.  It's not a fast mode: You're only allowed to send during ever other minute (48 seconds, actually), and you can only send 13 characters in that time.

Apart from a ham radio station and a computer, the only hardware needed is some kind of audio interface, which you can buy or build yourself.

When you start the JT65-HF program, you're greeted with this:

The rectangle at the top is a so-called "Waterfall" display, which shows signals being received.  They slowly move down, letting you see where they are now and where they were a few seconds ago.  (This technology was first used, I believe, in naval sonar systems).

The main thing, though, is the darker-gray rectangle on the left.  It shows all the signals received in the last minute, including how strong they are, which frequency they're on, and what they said.

In a feature carried over from moonbounce modes, everyone transmits on even minutes and listens on odd ones, or vice-versa.  That means you and the person you're trying to contact are guaranteed not to block each other by transmitting at the same time.

Let's see how a typical contact looks, and what I had to do to make it.  Spoiler alert: It isn't much.

Ignore the red bar for now.

Most ham radio contacts start with a station calling "CQ," meaning "I'll talk with anyone."  (There are other ways, but let's stick with that for now.  When a station sends "CQ", the program automatically highlights it in green.  Looking at the upper of the two CQ-ing stations, KE9DX is calling CQ, and he's in grid square EN61.

One of the foundations of JT65-HF is the "Maidenhead Locator" system.   It assigns a two-letter, two number name to a 1 degree latitude by 2 degree longitude rectangle.  Here's where KE9DX is:

A callsign lookup says Francis Mah actually lives in Buffalo Grove, Illinois.

Here's a typical JT65-HF contact:

I double-click on his green "CQ" bar to say I want to contact W8JBL.  The program automatically decides what I should send ("W8JBL NO6E CN73"), CN73 being my grid.  When the clock says it's my turn, it sends it.

W8JBL sees my call.  On his computer, he clicks "SEND REPORT." During the next minute, it sends me this:

The red bar means the transmission is addressed to me. His computer sends both our calls and automatically appends my signal's strength ("-20").  There's no "eyeballing" - the signal strength he reports is calculated automatically.  In the JT65-HF world, all signals are reported compared to a reference of zero. The "-20" says my signal isn't very strong.  You can see in the square on the right side of the screen that my computer will send "-15," meaning that I hear him better than he hears me.

Now I click SEND REPORT.  In the next minute, my computer sends: "W8JBL NO6E R-15", acknowledging his report and sending him mine.

The last transmission is his:

"NO6E W8JBL 73" ends with ham radio-ese for "Best wishes."  We're done.  I click the LOG QSO (Contact) button, and the program logs the contact for me.

Neither of us did anything but click buttons, and not many of them at that.  Neither of us heard anything (I usually leave the speaker turned down, and most others do, too).  Neither of us typed the other's call.  Neither of us composed the transmissions we made - it was done for us.

Is there anything wrong here?  Some would say so.  Ever since the days of spark, hams have spoken darkly of how the hobby was getting "Too easy."  The greatest complaints came when voice communication came along and one didn't need to know Morse any more.  (Most of us still know and use it, though).

My answer: If you don't like it, don't use it.  Many hams specialize in a single mode of operation, either Morse, a data mode or some kind of voice.  There's room for all in the hobby.

So, how fancy a station does one "Need" to do this stuff?  Here's a picture of my operation in Bandon, Oregon, which literally occupies one end of a closet:

The radio is a Yaesu FT-450D, which costs around $750 new, but is also available used for lots less.  The computer (not shown) is few-years-old dual-core Dell desktop that I got for, I believe, $75. The audio interface is the small box labeled "Signalink USB."  It cost $130, but it makes things easier by having its own sound card built-in, so it needs only a single USB connection to the computer.  

The final item is the LDG  automatic antenna tuner, a box which "matches" the radio to the antenna.  About $150, but you can get by without one or get a manual one for less.

As for the antenna itself, it has a fancy name: "Double-Extended Zepp."  Yes, the name comes from the fact that it was used as an antenna on Zeppelins. The reality is much more mundane: It's an 88-foot horizontal wire, fed in the middle with "Ladder Line" transmission line:

You can see the "Ladder line" sloping up into the pine tree that supports the antenna itself.  Nothing fancy here like telescoping triangular towers and huge aluminum antennas.

Would I be able to contact more people with a fancier radio and antenna system? Absolutely.  But JT65-HF makes it easier for us "little guys" to have fun, too.

Interested? General info on ham radio is available from the American Radio Relay Leauge.  Info on JT65-HF is here.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

On Rabies

April 4, 2017

I was bitten by a dog last Friday morning.  Out for my morning walk, I encountered a dog walker.  I asked if I might greet her charge.  "Certainly," she said, "It'll be fine."

I extended my closed hand and the dog bit it -- hard.  "Did it break the skin?"  "Oh, yeah."

She was deeply chagrined, and explained that the dog was actually her daughter's.  Small comfort, that.  Distracted  by pain and bleeding, I neglected to get contact information and moved on.

After my walk, I washed the bite carefully and applied an over-the-counter antibiotic and bandage.  I hoped for the best.

By Saturday, the best was clearly not happening.  The hand felt hot and was puffy and swollen, so that its normal wrinkly appearance was smooth like an inflated balloon.

In our family, we joke that worrying is the most-distinguishing trait of an Ellis.  As an early therapist told me: "Your family expresses love by expressing worry."  Well, of course! Doesn't everyone's?  Apparently not.

Through social media, my wife and son quickly learned of the encounter and bade me "Get thee to a physician!"  Saturday night the pain was enough to make sleeping difficult, so I knew they were right.

On Monday, having researched both local doctors and hospitals near Bandon, I drove 20 miles or so to Coquille Valley Hospital .  I had considered just going to a family practitioner in Bandon, but wasn't sure how to choose one. Too, I wanted to be seen by someone experienced in the field.

The clerk, nurses and doctor at the Emergency Department couldn't have been nicer or quicker.  They listened carefully to what I said, treated me with respect, and got me on my way in under an hour with a prescription for Augmentin .  The doctor cautioned me, though, that the 20 capsules "might not be cheap."

Gritting my teeth, I returned to Bandon's CVS Pharmacy, where the prescription cost...$3.25.  I'll never understand drug pricing, I guess.

Today (Tuesday), I'm on the mend.  My hand is less-inflamed and cooler, if still a bit swollen.

So...lesson learned, right?  Don't try to greet strange dogs even if their handler says it'll be OK.  Move along. Nothing to see here.

Except...what if the dog was rabid?  (Antibiotics, like Augmentin, are useless against Rabies, because it's a virus.)

I had discussed it with Doctor Pasternak.  (I decided not to ask "Isn't your name supposed to be "Zhivago?" figuring he'd heard that joke before). He explained that no cases of rabies in a human contracted from a dog had happened in Oregon for, well, a long time.  The statistics bear him out: Of 621 dogs tested for Rabies since 2000, zero were infected.  (On the other hand, 8.4% of bats tested were positive.)

He told me that rabies vaccinations were "not indicated" in my case.  I remembered horror stories about rabies vaccine, which, at one time, involved, if I recall correctly, a regime of 14 shots into the abdomen.  Nowadays, administration is much more routine, though it's still expensive, around $700.

"But," I quavered, "What if I don't get the shots and become symptomatic?"

"You die!" he answered cheerfully.

Indeed, Rabies is usually described as "Invariably Fatal," a phrase that it is distinctly uncongenial when applied to oneself.  There was hope for the Milkwaukee Protocol for a time, but it's been largely disproven.

I won't be getting the immunization, because, statistically, it's not called for.  But it's not the first time that I've felt as if statistics do not sound completely convincing when applied to me as an individual.  For example, I got a full course of "adjuvant" radiation therapy for my prostate cancer, even though surgery alone would have been enough, statistically speaking.

The takeaway, as journos call it:  Be very cautious to avoid contact with wild animals, especially bats and foxes.  (Note that, while dogs are not a significant vector in the U.S., they are in many foreign countries, including in Mexico).  Here in the Pacific Northwest, bats are, by far, the commonest vectors.  Avoid touching them.  If you think you may be exposed, see a doctor.  If bitten by a pet, be sure to get contact info so the animal's vaccination record can be traced.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Michael Bower: The Drink

As a boy in the 1950's, part of growing up was learning about drinks and drinking.  No drink fascinated me more than the Boilermaker, a shot of whiskey placed at the bottom of a stein of beer.  It was two drinks, not just one, and the name gave it stature.  A boilermaker, I figured was a a massive figure in a wife-beater t-shirt, with belly overflowing belt, but with massive arms that could lift anything and whip anyone.

The mystique was increased by the fact that Indiana's Purdue University used "Boilermakers"  as a mascot.  For a middle-class boy growing up in Palo Alto, the Boilermaker loomed large. 

One of the great honors is to have an internationally-known dish (Peach Melba or Beef Wellington) or drink (Shirley Temple or Mary Pickford) named after oneself.

Recently, pal Michael Bower retired from CBS Radio.  We've been friends for quite a while. As he is a bon vivant, compared to me, anyway, I decided an eponymous drink in his honor was in order.

Of course, my childhood Boilermaker interest reminded me that, if a drink named after one is good, then two (or more!) drinks in one's honor would be even better.

Casting about for the recipe of Michael Bower: The Drink, I decided first that a multi-part drink would certainly be best. Recently, Michael was introduced to the Pisco Sour by mutual friend and former colleague Terry Conway.  He took to it at once.

Pisco is a brandy, a distilled beverage made from fermented grapes.  While brandies are found nearly world-wide, Pisco is unique to Peru and Chile.  Of course, both counties assert that their version is the only authentic one, and that Pisco from the other is "Fake news."

Not one to shy away from difficult research, I resolved to try a Pisco Sour for myself, purely as investigation, of course.  It turns out, though, that Pisco and its Sour are largely unknown in Southern Oregon.  Who would have suspected that?

I felt sure that the best-known (well, only) Peruvian Restaurant in Grants Pass, Gtano would be sure to have them available. After all, it was Peruvian and it had a full bar. A slam-dunk, right?

Wrong.  The friendly bar-lady there said she wasn't sure if they had Pisco, but that she'd make me a Sour if they did. Triumphantly, she pulled a bottle from the back-bar.  Alas, the bottle was empty.   Other bars in the Grants Pass metropolitan area claimed never to have heard of Pisco at all.

Undeterred, I decided to Sour-seek further afield.  Some quick research on Yelp steered me to Jefferson Spirits, an upscale whiskey bar and brewpub in Medford.  I asked Master barkeeper Schuyler if he could make me one.  "Certainly," he replied, "But I must warn you: I'm going to put an egg white in it."  "Is that official," I asked?  "Yes." 

We discussed the possibility of contracting Salmonella or other infection from uncooked egg white.  He assured me that doing so was less likely than being eaten by a bear.  Of course, he added, most people live in cities, where there are few bears anyway.  Here in the Rogue Valley we do see the occasional bear.  Nevertheless, research must be served, so I bade him go ahead and make me one complete with egg white.

And he did:

Pisco Capel is made in the Elqui Valley of Northern Chile. (Not like the fake stuff from Peru).

The Sour, with an artistic garnish of Angostura Bitterswas delicious.  So, the first part of the Michael Bower was set!

Next came the beer.  Michael is a connoisseur of beers, far more than I.  He's tried most of them, some of them quite exotic.  But I limited myself to what was easily available in rural Oregon, and that meant the Belgian brew Stella Artois. It's actually a brand owned by Anheuser-Busch, but it's fancier, because it's European, I guess.  It reminded me of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot. In a story where someone calls him a "French Bastard," and he gently corrects them: "Belgian bastard, if you please."

So, we were there! Michael Bower: The Drink, in all its glory:

The bottled Stella was a compromise, of course.  Stella Artois on tap is largely unknown north of Marin County, California.

And yet, something was still lacking.  Yes, it was a double drink, like a Boilermaker, and was made with two beverages Michael likes.  But it still lacked....what?  I thought back to Michael's homeland, England, and realized what the missing ingredient was.

"No," I told myself, "No!  No one would drink it with that added!"  "Perhaps not," I answered, "But remember what Barry Goldwater said: 'Moderation in alcohol is no virtue, and Extremism in Bowerness is no vice.'"  Or something like that.

Even I could not face it.  Still, I had to admit, Michael Bower, The Drink" would really be complete only with a third ingredient:

Yep, it's Marmite, the leftover yeast from beer brewing turned into a sandwich spread and eaten, inexplicably, by many Brits.

As for me, I can face the truth.  I just can't taste it.

March, 2017