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A few words from Rob K9RST…

Back from Kenya

Had my sponsors explained the full details of my trip to Kenya and Tanzania, I am not sure I would have gone.  I knew we were heading off to the far north bush country of Kenya to meet up with some tribal people…I knew that we would not have electricity, water or any measure of creature comforts…what I was not prepared for was the incredible dust that filled every crevice and was a constant nuisance to the camera, or that I had to ford a river by walking through it (I did lose my still camera to that one). The hardships were real: snakes, scorpions and mosquitoes all around us…but the beauty of the people and the landscape far made up for the hardships.  I was there on a documentary project hired by the Christian Orthodox church to create a short video that showed the work they are doing in this part of the world. It was an amazing journey, the details of which I will save for another blog. What I wanted to share with you here was my experience with the wireless world I thought I had left behind.

In the old days of missionary work, it was quite common for a minister to get his ham license so he could talk to his colleagues back home. This was not only for health and welfare traffic, but really provided a simple social network for the men in the field.  In fact, I was talking to someone from the Divine Word Missionary (the place where we house some of our repeaters) and was told that it was common for the priests there to get their ham ticket before they departed for their ultimate mission destinations.  That is no longer the case.  Ham radio has been replaced by cell phones.

Yes, after driving 5 hours in the absolute bush, through dusty, misshapen roads, when we arrived at our tribal village that was to be our home, we were able to get cell service!  Largely this was for text messaging (I suspect because the cost is high for a voice call).  And, to be sure, it was not the indigenous people using the phones, it was members of our team.  All Land Rovers, in this part of the world, come equipped with a monster HF whip antenna mounted to the front bumper…but I never saw a single radio!  The airports had lots of HF antennas, so I know they are used for something, but the common person uses his cell phone.  Even the Archbishop in Nairobi, with whom we met and interviewed, spent most of his time texting to people in the field.  That is how the church works these days!

Meanwhile, back to one of my first challenges - getting power to charge my video camera batteries. Originally, I was told that we would be dropped off by a driver and then left in the back country for several days to camp.  With no Jeep, we would have no power.  Eventually, that changed, but I had to prepare a plan where I could be completely independent of truck batteries.  It took awhile, but I eventually I found a gentleman in Boston who specializes in making solar battery systems for the film and video industry.  In fact, he was making a set for a team going to shoot on K2 when we spoke.  He agreed to help me out – we worked out the specs for the project and I left him to it.  Two days before I was to leave, I had not heard from him and I was getting concerned.  I called and he said he was just putting the finishing touches on the unit and would ship it out FedEx for overnight delivery. It arrived the next day…with a note from him apologizing for the shipping cost.  Turns out overnight express for the charger and the panel was half the cost of the system!  Ouch.  Anyway, he delivered a brilliant little self contained charging system…20 watt solar panel that feeds into a smart control panel that manages the power to the battery.  The output was three cigarette lighter plugs…because that is what many of the commercial camera battery chargers use.  Well, the system worked great.  I charged all of my batteries everyday and on some occasions, even helped charge the cell phone my colleagues had brought.  Now I have a terrific little system that I can use to power a QRP station!  I am eager to find new ways to torture test this little device!

So, I am now back on home turf.  Had to spend my first days repairing my wire antennas that had been dropped by falling tree limbs while I was gone!  Now that I am almost back to normal (jet lag bothered me for about a day), I am recharged and set to go out again.  BTW, I was thrilled to be able to contact my wife by text messaging a few times myself, so I am a believer – the world is getting smaller thanks to wireless technologies.  Also, turns out that in this part of the world, electricity is difficult to come by, even in the large cities.  In parts of Tanzania, they had to ration electrical power because of a water shortage (they relied on hydro power and the water levels were too low to produce enough juice for the city).  Power would go out randomly…and, of course, people adapted…almost every business has their own diesel or smaller power plant!  Made for a noisy, smelly city.

Glad to be home and very grateful for what I have.


What I did on the 4th! Or how to exercise my parkway freedoms

As many of you know, just before Field Day, we had several monster storms pass through town.  Virtually all of my wire antennas came down, largely because the trees supporting them fell over. 

It took a long while to try to collect the parts from the broken tree branches, but to my surprise, most of the antenna elements survived.  Of course, Field Day got in between me and the trees…and Ed Burckart kindly took my Super Sling Shot string and cleaned it up. So I get all of my gear back on the 4thof July and set out to put up my antennas.  But where to go with them?  The old trees were now gone! 

Well, I looked a little farther down the line, and there was an even taller cottonwood sitting on the parkway (the space between my property and the city/county)…almost a no man’s land.  So, I set out to install my antennas.  Turns out, to shoot the trees was not going to be all that easy, since on the one side the weight and lead string could land on Lake Ave (and into busy traffic)…and I didn’t want to be on Lake Ave with my trusty over- sized sling shot shooting back toward my yard.  That’s all I’d need is the Glenview Police investigating some guy with an 8 foot sling shot!  Who knows what weapons charges I would face.  So I did everything stealthy and from my yard.  I did have to climb atop my garage to make the one shot…but in almost all cases, I was a one-shot wonder.  Aim, shoot and direct hit.  I was deadly, if I may say so myself.  

The problem was as a one man band, I had to shoot the tree, load the heavier rope, pull the rope, bring up the antenna, avoid the neighbors’ trees, climb the ladder, jump on the roof, etc.  The point is, it took most the day on the 4th.  I got to thinking, while I was doing all of this, how wonderful this country is that I could even be doing any of this sort of work. I mean there are still countries where you cannot use radios, of course, there are places in our country where you cannot put up antennas.  That’s a different problem…and was not part of my stream of conscious inner dialogue.  Well, 3 p.m.  I got all of the antennas back up before the grandkids showed up —-if I had left them on the ground, I am sure my little grandson would have found some crazy project to make them into! A fort. Tug of war rope…who knows. After Field Day, it was good to get back to fixing the antennas in my own back yard.

Speaking of Field Day, it was really a wonderful experience.  I met some wonderful new people, many of whom want to get into the hobby.  I worked a bunch of folks while on the SSB station.  I had a couple of great 80 meter runs that were actually fun to be part of.  You call out CQ and people come bounding back to you!  How often do we get to work the other end of a pile up?  It was great to see so many folks attend our picnic.  The weather was perfect and the park was spectacular.  Basically, we showed that we can have a Field Day in a remote park and, with the right advertising, the people will come.  Thanks to the many hands who helped make this year’s Field Day so special.


Murphy and rooftop antennas

Since I became a more aged fellow this past Spring, I have been trying to be more safety conscious about how I approach dangerous activities.  So, I had a replacement beam antenna I wanted to install on my Glen Martin tower.  I spent most of the morning setting up ladders, safety lines and sorting out gear.  I had assembled the antenna the night before and tested the lengths to make sure they were all correct and then I lifted the new antenna into place against the gutter.  Of course, the phone rang, and I was off to handle some urgent business issues for about an hour.  When I returned, the sun came out and the cool morning temperatures quickly climbed to a steamy 87 degrees…not the best thing for roof work.  Still I was determined to get the antenna up while I had everything in place.  Got the antenna to the roof top, used a rope and pulley to heft it into place and then tied my ladder and myself to the tower, just in case something decided to let loose.  

So there I was about 45 feet in the air, one hand guiding the antenna and one hand digging into my pocket for the u-bolts.  Sure enough, just as I was about to insert the u-bolt, a gust of wind appeared and moved the antenna and the u-bolt slipped through my fingers to the roof below…then off the roof to the deck below and then….well, I don’t know where it landed.  I secured the antenna with the rope and worked my way back down to the ground and spent near 15 minutes looking for that darn u-bolt.  I never did find it!  Fortunately, I had another one from other installs so I could finish the job…but it just goes to show you that Murphy works in high places too!

BTW, the new antenna is up and works like a champ.

Listening In

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to a talk at Northwestern for serious speech majors, which was part of a program my aunt and uncle funded to promote scholarship. I went, somewhat reticent about what I was getting into, because some of these talks can be quite deadly.

I was most pleasantly surprised to learn that the speaker, Susan Douglas, was an avid ham radio fan. She has written a book on the history of radio in this country and devoted considerable space to the influence that ham radio operators had in the early development of commercial and non-commercial radio. This was not the topic of her talk, but I did pick up her book, “Listening In,” and I have been trying to gobble it down between jobs.

Basically, she tells how in the wild days before the Internet, this country developed an almost irrational passion for radio. Young men and boys were glued to their shortwave radio sets trying to discover what they could do. As she tells the story, you can feel the fever in the air. In the early days, there were few rules, and although radio was largely seen for the good it could provide, there were some bad eggs (were there ever not bad eggs?) who took advantage of circumstances to have some fun.

For instance, it was common for some folks to pretend they were speaking for the Navy and send ships out to sea just because they could! Apparently things reached a peak when the Titanic sank. As news spread of its demise, some amateur radio folks passing the news around included rumors (sounds like Facebook today) – e.g., “Yes the ship sank, but all of the people were safe.” Well, nothing was even close to the truth, and as a result of the cacophony and chaos then on the bands, the government stepped in and developed protocols and band plans (even that sounds familiar today).

There is one entire chapter devoted to “Why Ham Radio Matters” and it isn’t just about the public service work we do. For her, the true excitement of ham radio is that we have built a small sub culture that uses radio to reach out to distant lands, and to have our imaginations excited by voices from the great out-there. Reading her book brought back many of the reasons why I got into radio in the 50’s and why I continue to find it so fascinating. For me, it is a retreat from the visual world that is my work, and also the fascination that with a simple wire and a small radio, you can hear the world. I highly commend the book to your attention.

This comes just as we begin our annual Field Day Pilgrimage. For many of us, it means dusting off our field gear and preparing for 24 hours of pure operating. I know this does not turn some of you on…but there is a real joy in trying to reach folks around the US and Canada and to overcome adverse conditions.

However, if you are not inclined to burn the midnight oil, please come out Saturday June 25 to socialize and enjoy the day and the food!

Grandkids and ham radio

So, I was thrilled a few weeks back when my way-too-exuberant three year old grandson took a liking my ham shack.  He seemed to enjoy pretending he was at the mic…and would find all kinds of ways to get his 2 foot 10” frame up on the chairs and then up to the mic.  It was funny! (If not a bit dangerous!)  Well, the other day I watched in complete horror as he did what most kids eventually do…he hit every single button on the face of the radio in about one millisecond, including turning it on!  Instantly, the radio went into total spaz mode (this is different from the spaz mode it goes into when I do something, because I can usually remember what button I hit.)  Well, I just spent nearly 35 minutes, running down all of the buttons, trying to find the one single button that he hit that was preventing me from getting the receive audio on!  Yes, I felt like a complete dummy, and yes, I had to get the manual out…but on the bright side, I got up close and personal with the old Pro III.  (He actually hit a little button on an accessory pad that turned the mic on!)

On other fronts, I felt like a 3-year old myself, trying to transfer my files from one computer to another.  I know, this is supposed to be easy – and this one is a Mac to boot, but for some reason, there is a simple, secret handshake that you have to use to make the real files appear (no, this isn’t as simple as copy and paste).  You have to hold the “Options” button until a secret screen appears and allows you to go further.   How did I find that out? The Internet, of course. I can see how many people have given up on technology and have hunkered down into their quiet lives without cell phones and smart phones.  I ran into one of my former Boy Scouts (he is now in his 30’s) a few days back and he basically said, he had given up on technology. He has a cell phone, but for outgoing calls only.  He never –NEVER listens to voice mail and does not do email! He can’t stand Facebook or Twitter or even a Smart phone with Apps!  He likes to just meet up with people face to face!  

Imagine that!  Maybe there is hope.

(March 6)  Well, I finally dusted off the rig and worked the ARRL WW SSB contest this weekend.  It was great to hear 15 meters open up.  First, though, I had to find my microphone!  Seems that my grandchildren have taken a fancy to my microphone – they use it for pretend stage singing.  Although I have to admit, I am amazed how the three year old figured out that it is something you talk into.  I caught him standing on my  desk chair by the rig and hanging onto the microphone talking away.  Maybe he was imitating me?  Anyway, it was a riot, until I needed to find the microphone (he also unplugged it and ran off with it.  I found it in the toy box.)  So, back to the contest.  I knew I wasn’t going to be very competitive…just would be able to get on and do a couple of little runs throughout the weekend.  I started on 40 meters very early Saturday morning and to my amazement, I found a bunch of folks to work.  I worked most of Caribbean in about 30 minutes.  I had to run out and came back later that morning and found 15 meters alive to South America and later to Europe.  If I could hear them, I could work them.  Well, that is something new….haven’t had that experience in a while!  So, while I didn’t set any land speed contesting records, I did have a great time getting back on the air and demonstrating to myself that ole station still works fine.  Oh, I do have a nagging tower issue that I will have to address when I can get back on the roof.  The rotor jams about 90 degrees?

Meanwhile, to keep life interesting, I had to reformat my laptop’s hard drive.  I have had nothing but trouble with it for the past few months and have tried everything, save sending it out.  I have had  IT engineers from McAfee India all over the machine for weeks, and they couldn’t get it to work.  So, I did the dangerous thing. First, I saved all of my files, which are mostly ham files, and then I got the recovery disks out from the file cabinet.  I pushed the disc in with some fear and followed the loading instructions.  Well, it didn’t take long to erase the entire drive and is now in the process of rebuilding hard drive.  We will let you know how it goes, but all of this is a preamble to what Mark Klocksin is going to talk about at the next Club meeting—managing your PC.  I had 50,000 little ham applications (WinLink, APRS, Packet, PSK, logging software…you name it…) on my laptop and I am sure many of them were conflicting with one another.  I am hoping that by starting over, I can more carefully rebuild the drive so that it will work more effectively.  Unfortunately, I will be missing Mark’s talk…so I hope someone take notes!!

I had such good intentions of writing one of these Blogs every month.  Then we went to Yuma for Holidays and time simply got the best of me. Fact is, I have been in one of those end-of-the-year funks that catch us all between closing out the records from one year and starting a new business year. There are countless chores to complete.  Plus, I had the pleasure of working on the final touches for our Winter Banquet, which demands much more detail work as you get closer to the date.  Once again, we had a very successful event.  84 people attended and a good time was had by all.  Our Speaker, Steve Jajkowski, really did keep us all on engaged as he described the history of commercial television in Chicago.  It was much more complex and dynamic story than I would have thought.  He came with power point slides showing some of the key players and some of the local celebs, many of whom built their broadcast careers here. We found out that even our own Trudy Kaplan (Jordan’s wife) has her career start with Channel 3 as an on air personality!


Repeaters. Bears repeating!

Meanwhile, the club has been blessed with a couple of really terrific volunteers, who have been diligently working to improve our two meter machine. Warren Pugh, Dave Hewitt, Ron Harroff, Don Whiteman, Mark Klocksin, Ed Burckart, Mike Swiatkowski are just a few who come to mind.  For the past month, we have been up and down that tower trying our best to make incremental improvements to the 2 meter repeater. As I write, we have deployed only the two meter machine in the space, so that we can isolate some of the technical issues.  As you may recall, Techny, which used to be our home for about 10 years, is basically a brick tower with steel girders supporting the structure.  Our antennas and equipment are indoors, which is an advantage, but this also presents challenges. One floor below us is a complex cell tower site….they have those familiar rectangular antennas mounted in front of each window.  Since we are upstairs, separated by a thick concrete floor from the cell boys, we don’t see too much interference (we think)…but we may have been trying to put to many of our own services up there and that is where we needed to sort out our equipment.  For the moment, the 220 Mhz repeater is down, the APRS/Digi and BBS are also down.  As we refine our work, we will slowly bring these services back on line.


Historic Snow Day

I am sure most of you are aware that we got hit with a sizeable snow storm event this week (Feburary 2, 2011).  I shoveled three driveways myself and have the back pains to prove it.  One of the great, fun things (if you can call it that) that comes with these storms is that you are forced to be home with your radios (and your wife!).  I spent some quality time on my scanner listening to the various police and fire responders who had to work the event (actually, my wife sat alongside as we listened to the various reports of accidents and stranded motorists.)  I was thrilled to discover a web site that lists every single frequency listed to anyone in the Chicago area (I am not a scanner fanatic…so pardon my naïve enthusiasm.) is not a site for the casual user.  They list hundreds of frequencies that you can monitor over their internet site, and, if you choose you can find the frequencies of interest to you and program them into your own radio, which is what I did.  I never did turn on TV last night.  It was a radio night.  I also monitored some of the ARES nets in Wisconsin and Indiana and got all excited about buying a HF amplifier. Frankly, this may be the only reason for me to even think of owning an amplifier.  During times of real emergencies, it would be good to be able to effectively get a signal out on 80 or 40 meters.  Sometimes it takes events like these to bring you back to your senses and give you the time to reflect on the things that are truly important in life.

See you on the bands.


Murphy Showed Up

Murphy stopped by with his entire family and settle in at my ham radio shack …

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Blame it on Wallmart, Part II

A week later, I ordered the parts I needed to fix my computer monitor. I ordered a few more than I needed because the shipping cost was a flat rate of $13. I also ordered more connectors than I needed because, well, why spend $13 shipping a $2 capacitor? So, some of the parts arrived …

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Parts? What parts?

This isn’t what I had in mind for this month…I will still write up a blog on my experiences in Washington, DC to visit the Marine Corp marathon to see how they handle their ham communications…but on my way to the blog this month, this happened:

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