Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Recovering from the disk crash

More on DXpedition adventures tomorrow. Tonight, I’m just trying to recover from the disk crash in my laptop Monday afternoon.
Apple repaired my laptop in record time. The new drive was installed along with the latest OS and was as clean as the day I bought it. At first, I thought I would just restore from the latest backup, patch up other stuff as best I could, and continue as though nothing happened. Then, I thought this might be a good time to clean up a bit and only selectively restore what I really needed. (It is hard to believe the magnitude of junk that accumulates on your disk over time!)
As of this writing, I still in the middle of that exercise. Except for a couple of months of archived email, I didn’t really lose anything from this misadventure. Even so, I’ve convinced myself that I really do need to be more deliberate and careful about backups. This could have been a very messy problem.
The other thing I noticed is how all these serial numbers and registration codes are a complete pain in the neck when you’re trying to get your applications running again! If I were away from home, I’d be completely helpless if I needed, for whatever reason, to reinstall an application. Even if I had internet access, could down load the installer, and get the program reinstalled on my disk, I’d still be hosed if I couldn’t locate the stupid registration code/unlock code/magic number/please-don’t-steal-software/nobody-trusts-anybody-anymore code. {sigh}
So, along with manuals, I think I’ll collect all my stupid registration codes into a document and make sure that goes on to hammac, too. I should have done this a long time ago, but now I’m motivated. Oh, yeah, and I’m starting a backup before I go to bed, too! I’m not getting bit by this twice in one week!

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Hard drive failure and log processing tools

I didn't mention in last night's blog that I was experiencing some technical difficulties. The hard drive in my trusty 17-inch PowerBook crashed hard yesterday afternoon. I was up until about 4AM this morning attempting to Resuscitate it without success. So, I formatted the drive and tried to reinstall everything. At that point, the disk diagnostics program indicated it was a hardware fault reported by the drive (or its driver) and refused to budge.
I do have good backups of nearly everything. I've lost some mail, of course, and probably a few other odds-and-ends, but for the most part I'm in good shape. The computer is still covered by AppleCare so the repair will be free. I drove down to the Burlington (MA) store this morning and dropped it off. The service guy said it should be back in my hands soon, possibly by the end of the week.
While I was doing all this diagnostic work last night, there was a great deal of waiting and more waiting. I used TechTool, a diagnostic utility that came bundled with the AppleCare agreement to attempt to scan the disk and rebuild all the pointers. Scanning a large disk, especially one with problems, takes a long time. So, I would take a glance at the screen every half-hour or so, but otherwise left it to work. Waiting. Waiting.
While I was waiting I got a start on the log processing tools I hope to use while on Montserrat. The idea is this: each operator has their own call sign. We'll keep computer logs for each operator in a separate file. Once a day, I will collect all those logs and produce an ADIF file with all the QSO information for each operator. My tools will then read in all those ADIF files and create a large set of HTML pages that can be uploaded to the DXpedition web site.
The programs are being written in C and will be likely be portable to other platforms when I'm finished. Perhaps I'll bundle them up and make them available at the end of this adventure.
In the mean time, I'm now using HamMac as my main computer. Except that the screen is a bit small (I'm really spoiled by the 17-inch screen on the other laptop), this is a very fine machine! I believe it will serve us well down on Montserrat.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Licenses have arrived!

I arrived home this evening and found a large envelope in the mail box with the words, "ON HER MAJESTY'S SERVICE" printed on it. At first, I thought it was some weird promotion for the new James Bond film. Then I realized the new movie is Casino Royale, not On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Huh? Then I spotted the exotic stamps with the name Montserrat in bold type. The licenses from Montserrat are here!
I ripped open the envelope to find five licenses for the original five group members, me, Paul, Mike, Budd, and Chris, along with a letter from the licensing authority indicating we have a valid license for calendar years 2007 and 2008. Hooray!
In an evil twist of fate, I had only hours before come from the Federal Express office in Burlington where I had dropped of another whole set of materials to the island. {sigh} I will drop our friend down there a note and tell him that only the materials for the last two guys, Tom and Bob, should be submitted.
The time to process the materials was about 2 1/2 months (September 12th to November 27th). Figuring it spent about a week each way, that means the offices down on Montserrat processed the request in about two months. That is a pretty good response time for stuff like this, I suspect. The panic we had been feeling in the group was entirely self-inflicted: we should have had these materials mailed to the island in June, not September.
If you are planning on visiting a far away place, get your licensing materials in very, very early. In this case, the license for operating on Montserrat was only about $10 US. Even if you don't actually go, you're only out ten bucks. If you are even considering going to some far away place, apply for the license early in your planning process. We did not do this and it caused all sorts of commotion and concern.
Enough of that! Here are the new call signs:
B. Scott Andersen (NE1RD) == VP2MRD
Budd Drummond (W3FF) == VP2MFF
Chris Drummond (W6HFP) == VP2MHF
Mike Greenwood (KC4VG) == VP2MVG
Paul Van Dyke (KB9AVO) == VP2MVO
There is lots more to talk about from last night's conference call. I'll try to pick up that thread tomorrow. In the mean time, please join me in a big sigh of relief! The license are here!

Concall and spreadsheets

The four day weekend wasn't quite enough to finish all that I had put out in front of me. There are so many things that need to be tested, organized, and arranged, I'm starting to think I should have started this much earlier than I have!
I made copies of all of the licensing materials and now have them organized and ready to go in the morning. I just need to stop by the Post Office, get the money order, and head off to Federal Express. What a relief that will be!
Our second conference call was scheduled for this evening. Five of seven made the call, including Paul from Puerto Rico. We covered a lot of ground in the 75 minutes. Here is the agenda for the con-call:
  1. Status updates on the big stuff (flights, licenses)
  2. Equipment organization
  3. Recording our adventure (Still photography, Audio recording options, Video recording options)
  4. Marketing
    • Web site plans and updates
    • DVD/video planning
    • Dayton planning
    • Thoughts on magazine articles to be written
  5. Alternative power options for portable operation
  6. Logging (QSL collection and record keeping, Web site updates, Paper QSLing, eQSL, LoTW)

We also covered some other stuff as the discussion proceeded. Here are some of those thoughts presented in no particular order:
  • Clothing: No dress up stuff. Casual only.
  • PowerPoles: We should standardize on PowerPoles for all 12v connections. Everybody put PowerPoles on their stuff.
  • Can we wash clothes while at the villa? Probably. We should plan on it, even it means doing it in the bath tub.
  • Can we locate a hardware store on the island? How much use of local materials can be made?

We then covered again the general list of equipment we're considering for the trip. For the long items, like the long masts bundled with the Buddipole, a golf bag might be best. This is the one I have: The Vault. The current thought is I might be able to bring the case from Boston and use it to hold all the long pieces for the group (the other long pieces are likely going to be supplied by the Buddipole guys, and they'll already have them staged in Florida for a ham fest they're attending).
One other point: I'm taking Southwest Airlines from Manchester, New Hampshire down to Florida. Southwest allows three checked bags. Some of the other guys are traveling very light (perhaps one bag plus carryon), so my third bag, the golf bag, could be handed-off to another member of the group when we leave Florida.
We decided that the best way to organize all this stuff is for each of us to create an Excel spreadsheet with a complete inventory of each bag. The columns in the spreadsheet are name, bag identifier, item description, weight, and serial number. Here is a portion of my spreadsheet that I began pulling together tonight (only showing the first bag and omitting some information):

BSA Weight Description
13 Pelican 1510 case
4 Alinco DM-330MV 32A Power Supply
0.5 Super Whatt Meter
2 LDG AT-7000 autotuner
5 Icom 7000 transciever
1 Icom CT-17 level converter
0.5 Icom HM-151 hand microphone
1 RIGrunner 4005 Power distribution

2 Red accessory box
# (2) CT-17 power connectors
# LDG autotuner to radio cable
# Heil traveler adapter cable
# Heil ProSet adapter cable
# (2) 1/8 inch patch cables
# one foot PL259 patch cable
# PL-259 to BNC adapter
# Keyspan USA-19HS serial
# USB patch cord

0.5 Radio Shack 22-820 VOM
0.5 Power cord spades / PowerPoles
1.5 Power cord PowerPoles / Molex
0.5 Power cord Cigarette / PowerPoles
0.5 2/440 magmount antenna
Alinco manual and service manual
Minilog book
Icom 7000 Nifty mini-manual
0.5 Radio Amateurs World Atlas
Small screwdriver
(2) ferrite blocks
33 Estimated total
30 Scale shows weight at

The other bags will need to contain the Heil headsets, antennas, coax, tools, antenna analyzer, etc. I will try to complete my spreadsheet before our next conference call.
These detailed lists serve a couple of purposes. First, it helps ensure we don't leave some critical piece of equipment at home. If we all review these lists, the chances of forgetting something important is small. Second, making these lists help coordinate between the group members. We all don't need to bring, say, an MFJ-259B antenna analyzer. One should be sufficient for the group. As we go through these lists, we can eliminate unnecessary duplication and its associated weight. Third, the government of Montserrat will be checking all of the stuff we bring on to the island and will wish to either collect duty on it, or at least a deposit. Similarly, we need to have a complete list to get back out. These spreadsheets can go a long way towards helping organize that detail.
We covered more stuff in this call (it was a very good call!). I'll try to cover more in the next blog entry. It is getting late here on the East Coast and tomorrow is a work day. Plus, I just noticed how long this entry had become. My, I'm long winded! {grin}

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Video and a lazy day

As you might guess, living on an island with a major volcano can be interesting. Monserrat, with its Soufriere Hills Volcano, has gone through quite a bit in the last decade or so as vulcanism has destroyed much of the southern half of the island, including Plymouth, the (now former) capital. I have read about some of these events, but we live in the era of video and visual images. So, I ordered the DVD Price of Paradise "Memories of Montserrat 2005 Edition" some time ago hoping to get a better understanding of the volcano and the geography of the island.
The video is excellent with a combination of firsthand accounts of the many events leading up to the big one, and many aerial shots from helicopters giving you the perspective you need to understand the rapid changes imposed on the landscape by this monster. I had purchased a topographical map of the island from (this one, in fact) allowing us to find the cities and other landmarks mentioned in the video.
One term kept cropping up: ghaut. The narrator on the video mentioned Mosquito Ghaut, Tuitts Ghaut, and Whites Ghaut. Not having any idea what a ghaut was, I looked it up. Here's a definition from the Volcano World: "A ghaut (which is derived from India) is a mountain pass or a valley between two mountain ranges." So, kids at home, when you run into a new word you don't know, stop and look it up. {grin}
As you might expect, the volcano did not have one eruption but had, instead, a long series of ever escalating events the culminated in the final evacuation of the island's southern half. The video does an excellent job of showing how this long transition affected the landscape, economics, and people of the island. This was no travel video; it was an excellent documentary. Highly recommended.
I was lazy today. I had intentions of doing lots of things to prepare for this trip, and to finish some stuff for a local radio club that I had promised to do. I did neither (and nearly nothing). I even took a little nap this afternoon. I think I needed it.
Tomorrow, though, it is back to the to do list. I've got audio testing to do, preparation for the conference call with the rest of the BUMS scheduled for tomorrow night, and, yes, I need to do my laundry.

Audio capture with TuneTalk

Word came through today that our charter flight between Antigua and Montserrat has been officially booked. This nagging detail was finally put to rest by Chris (W6HFP) and he notified the group my email tonight. That was one of the last big details; the other big detail is licensing.
I am nearly done packaging up all the materials everybody sent me for the licensing. I'm enclosing a letter for our friend on Montserrat and another letter for the licensing authority, just in case there is confusion from two applications possibly being submitted (if, indeed, they found the other one from September). The materials will be bundled up and sent via Federal Express first thing Monday morning. I was able to get the street address of our contact on the island confirmed by email tonight (I didn't want to have the second package become wayward, too!) so I now have nearly everything I need. Just a quick stop by the Post Office in the morning to get an international postal money order (or something similar) and it should be ready to go.
One of the little side projects I've had planned is to figure out a way to record lots of audio from the QSOs during the DXpedition. The idea was to find some digital audio recorder that was capable of storing dozens or hundreds of hours of audio and then just record everything. I believe Sandy found something today that will address most of this. We were in the Apple Store and she spotted one of these: TuneTalk Stereo for iPod video. The device connects to an iPod and turns it into an audio recorder. It produces .wav files and, according to Belkin, the unit can record up to about 350 hours of audio on a 60GB iPod. I bought the 80GB today. Quick tests tonight with the built-in microphones on the device produced good results. I plan on capturing audio from the Icom 7000 tomorrow.
There is still a missing piece: I'd like to be able to record my side of the QSO directly with a microphone mounted on the headset boom. I found a wireless microphone system, lapel microphone, and some other audio stuff in an old video accessories bag last night and should be able to make something out of all that. I still need a set of cables, or maybe even a mixer, to make this work out just right. I'll try everything separately, then solve the integration problem.
By capturing every moment of audio I can with this system, I'll be able to have lots of great sound clips for presentations or videos I produce after the trip. It also gives me a second way to capture audio while doing videotaping. If you've already got a video iPod, check out the Belkin unit.
Finally, a little goodie I spotted in an email reflector this week. MacOS X has a dashboard that can run lots of little utilities. These utilities are called widgets (not to be confused with the X-Windows and Motif concept of widget). Here's a widget called SunClock 1.0.1 that gives you a nice map of the Earth with the terminator. Nothing fancy, just a fun little software add-on. Macintosh users enjoy.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

The reappearance of our applications?

I had posted recently about our efforts to obtain licenses from the Montserrat authorities. I had abandoned all hope that the envelope full of application forms and pictures would be found and processed by the authorities on the island and so I had collected a new set of materials from the members. The pile now sits on my dining room table nearly ready for mailing.
Imagine my surprise to hear from Bob Follett (AB7ST) that our wayward envelop may not be so lost after all. Word has filtered back that our application may be on the desk of the Licensing officer on Montserrat. Of course, that envelope only contains the forms for the first five members of the crew and not the latest two (Bob, AB7ST and Tom Clarke, W4OKW). So, there is still work to do.
I sent around a mail message today asking for advice from the group on how to proceed. The consensus was to go ahead and send the second package of materials to our contact on Montserrat and let him work out the details, including any duplicate applications. That sounds reasonable to me.
So, my plan is to complete my application in the morning, write a letter to accompany the package, and get it to Federal Express for shipment to the island. Even by Federal Express, it will be a couple of days before the package is received on the island. Sigh. I should have started this much earlier.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Cleaning out the old mail box

I've got a nice, four-day weekend coming up and I plan on making the most of it. This evening, though, I'm just relaxing and going through my email, which had stacked up considerably. One note from a friend in a local club asked if I had a good translation for Soufriere Hills, the name of the volcano on Montserrat. Well, I'm sure there is a better way to get a translation for the name than this, but I entered Soufriere into Altavista's Babelfish language translation program and got Sulphur mine. Sounds reasonable!
This nugget is courtesy of Don Argo and the Dogpark Software email reflector. If you've spent too much of your life pulling wires between your computer and radio, here's a thought: a Bluetooth Serial Adapter from IOGear. According to Don's account, "I've tried it on the Intel Mac Pro and the older G4 Power PC on MacOS X. No extra drivers are required -- you just use the OS X Set up Bluetooth Device. Set the baud rate and set it to a slave device with the dip switches. It does require the supplied wall wart to be plugged in to supply power but the range will allow you to control your radio in one part of the house from your bluetooth equipped computer in another." Don talks about the Macintosh because that is what he supports, but this thing should work on PCs or Macs. The street price for this is about $65 and is available from Amazon, PCConnection, to name a few. I do not own one of these, but it does look interesting. And, if Don says it works, it works.
Sandy found this clock which shows the current time and the world map with terminator. Sure, maybe it isn't as sexy as one of these , but you can't beat the price (free).
I mentioned DXpedition videos in last night's post. They are certainly great fun but there are lots of things to be learned from them, too. The latest one from the 3Y0X DXpedition will be shipping soon according to DXpedition team leader Bob Allphin (K4UEE). Over 600 man-hours of editing time were invested and they have produced an excellent video according to Bob and his crew. I hope to have it in my hands the first week in December. Of course I'll post my review here.
Finally, today is November 22nd and our country lost our President 43 years ago today. Rest in peace, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 35th President of the United States of America.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Kerguelen video at local club

Tonight was a local radio club meeting night and the entertainment portion was a video from on Kerguelen island. All of these videos are great (I own them all), but this one seems especially good. The group loved it.
I think I'll give these videos another viewing over the long Thanksgiving weekend. These videos feature some of the best amateur radio operators alive doing what they do best. If you have one of these videos, check out how they pack their gear, get the antennas erected, and how much coax they bring. Even little things I've noticed will be added to my planning list. For example, bringing some red plastic ribbon or tape for marking coax or guy wires as tripping hazards is a great idea. Sure, it sounds obvious when I say it, but there are dozens of little tidbits like that in these videos that I would have a tough time conjuring on my own.
I got my passport picture taken (again) today. I will assemble the new licensing package in the morning. Well, that was my plan. Then I got a message today that it is possible that our original package may have been located in the licensing offices on Montserrat... maybe. {sigh} Another team member is tracking this down. Perhaps we'll know more tomorrow.

Monday, November 20, 2006

First conference call

We just finished up our first conference call for the group. I must say, this was a very useful exercise! Not everybody could attend, but those who did got a lot out of it, I think.
Here are the big things we discussed and decided:
  • No club call -- We had discussed on our email reflector the possibility of getting one call that would be used by the group (like the big DXpeditions do). In the end, we decided it didn't add much. Sure, it would mean we would be able to upload just one log with all contacts to LoTW, eQSL, etc., but it probably caused as many problems as it fixed. So, we'll all have separate callsigns. I even suggested there might be some who would wish to work all seven of us. Why not?!
  • Flights are all set -- Chris seems to have nailed down that last leg from Antigua to Montserrat. He will let us know how much we owe him and each of us will give him a check to cover this expense. This, and the licenses, were the last two big hurdles that were making us nervous.
  • Equipment database -- I had asked everybody to give a quick synopsis of the kinds of equipment they were going to bring to the island. There is going to be lots of interesting stuff going! To sort all this out, and remove duplication, we're going to start a planning area within our Yahoo! group to identify what equipment each of us will bring. I'll work on that over the next few days.
  • Model release forms -- We agreed that the one I had made looked good. I've already received one (though I didn't know it as I had not opened the envelope yet). Everybody else agreed to sign theirs and get it to me. Since Buddipole antennas will likely need it more than me, I'll just collect them all and give them to Budd and Chris once this is over. (Let them be responsible for them!)
  • Baggage won't be a problem -- There had been some concern early on that we might be facing a 20 Kg (44 pound) limit on baggage going to Montserrat. That would have been almost a deal-breaker for many of us. Now, it appears that Chris has negotiated at least the full 100 pounds for our 100 Pound DXpedition.
  • Golf bags -- I had posed the question, "Who wants to share a golf bag?" The Buddipole 16 foot masts break down to 41 inches, but that doesn't fit in most luggage. I had planned on bringing my golf bag and thought others who would also be bringing long masts might wish to share it. Now, because of the kinds of activities we're anticipating, many on the call thought they might not even be bringing the big mast. If it is true we are bringing no long pieces, we might not need the golf bag.
Well, I'm bringing the golf bag anyway. I want to bring my Big Buddipole system (described here), small Buddipole system, and some other long stuff, too. So, I'll have the golf case. (It will be interesting to see how they get it on to that twin otter. {grin}
So, I declare this first call a success. It is a good group! The free conference call system worked fine, except that Budd couldn't get in because "all circuits are busy". We hope moving to Sunday night will fix that, too.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Our man on Montserrat

I received a message from a Montserrat team member this morning with some great news. We have found a ham on the island who is willing to do all the legwork for expediting our licenses. We just send him the packet and a money order in his name and he'll use local currency to walk the paperwork through the system. Outstanding! Because we're starting to get into the Christmas season and the post office is feeling the pressure of the associated extra load, he suggested we use Federal Express or another express carrier to ensure that this envelope doesn't get lost in the shuffle. Good idea.
We do have some questions that need to be answered before we finalize our licensing materials. It was suggested on our group's email reflector that we hold our first conference call tomorrow night to work that out those last details. The agenda will be essentially what I posted the other night, though we did come up with a couple of extra questions today such as ,"most big-time DXpeditions have a single call sign and manage all QSLing that way... should we?"
I confess I'm very excited about this first call. It will be the first time I will have spoken with most of these guys. We've exchanged hundreds of emails, but I've only talked with Budd, Chris, and Paul in person or by telephone.
With just two months (or so) to go, there are many, many things left to do. I'll try to keep up the postings here so you can see it come together, or at least learn from my mistakes. {grin}

10 pound DXpedition?

My mailbox has been overflowing with big envelops from the Montserrat crew this week. We agreed to resubmit our licensing materials and everybody has sent me their passport-style pictures and paperwork. I'll bundle them up and get them off to the island... as soon as we figure out where. We're hoping to get some local hams on the island to walk the paperwork through for us since time is so tight. We hope to have that settled in the next couple of days.
In other news, I got a note from a good friend Greg (NE1OB) today with a pointer to this blog* from K0NR. Robert Witte writes about making a satellite contact from Bonaire. Greg's comment in his note was, "looks like a 10 pound DXpedition!" Sure does! And, it looks like fun. Congratulations to Robert!

* Normally I won't go back and fix a broken URL when things move, but this was interesting enough to make the effort. Enjoy.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Thinking vertically

My plans to try out the new low band coil for the Buddipole this weekend might need to be put on hold. Some pressing business at work will likely keep me out of the ARRL November Sweepstakes as well. So, I will have to content myself with just doing a little reading and researching over the next couple of days when I'm not in the office.
I only purchased one of the low band coils. With this single coil I should be able to make a shorted vertical antenna for 80 meters. How shortened? Consider the parts we'll be using:
  • 2 "arms" -- The Buddipole uses 22-inch aluminum rods that are about an inch in diameter. Two arms come with a standard Buddipole package. That gives us four feet.
  • 7 section shock-cord whip -- From the Buddipole accessories section you can purchase 3, 4, 5, 6, or even 7 section shock-cord whips. In my big Buddipole system I use the 5 section whips when operating in the dipole configuration. When constructing a vertical, I typically use my single 7 section whip which is over 12 feet in length.

A full sized vertical would be
234 / 3.5 = 66.8 feet high
We only have 16 feet of radiator between the arms and the whip. The rest will need to be made up with the coil. That might sound like a bad deal but keep in mind that this whole package weighs only a few pounds, breaks down into a small bundle, and can travel with you to faraway places. Plus, there is a lot of gray area between a dummy load and a near 100% efficient antenna. On these 100 pound DXpedition you need to give these compromised antennas a chance to surprise you.
The other problem you're going to have is, well, the other half of the antenna: the radial system. This is a little easier since the radials for the vertical can be made with very, very lightweight wire such as The Wire Man model #534 copper-clad steel which the vendor claims weighs less than one pound per 1000 feet!
Finally, you want these little wires to be the radials, not the outside of your coax. The Triple Ratio Switch Balun plays an important role here. This is from a note from the Buddipole User's Group on Yahoo! "The TRSB is 50:50, 50:25 and 50:12 ohms (nominal). It is designed specifically to match low impedance antennas, and to provide very high isolation (equivalent to approximately 80 beads)." I believe this little accessory is very helpful for use on the higher bands (40-10), but it is essential on 80 meters.
For now, though, the parts sit in the box awaiting their first experiements. Perhaps I'll get a little time over the Thansgiving holiday.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Conference call

Things are heating up on the Montserrat trip planning front. I received two packages of licensing materials today and I know other packages are on their way. Once I've received all six (mine makes seven), I'll send them off to the island. (We're working out the details of who to send them to now.)
I also received a big bag of T-shirts from Cafe Press today, and the new shirts look great! I'll send those shirts to the team in the morning.
Finally, I made the suggestion to the group that we have a conference call once a week to get some of these details nailed down. There is a service called Free Conference that seems to work well, and it is free.
In our first call I've suggested we discuss:
  1. Status updates on the big stuff -- Flights, licenses.
  2. Radio equipment selection -- each of us give some indication of what you're bringing.
  3. Packing options -- How do you expect to pack it and get it there? Who wants to share a golf case?
  4. Buddipole "mystery" stuff -- How much experimental stuff will be brought?
  5. Alternative power options for portable operation -- Bring rechargeable batteries? Buy batteries (car/boat) while there? Solar panels to supplement operation?
  6. Recording our adventure -- Audio recording options? Video recording options
  7. Marketing -- Web site plans and updates. DVD/video planning. Dayton planning. Thoughts on magazine articles to be written.
  8. On-island communication plan -- Safety planning. General coordination.

I'm sure once we get going there will be lots more to talk about. Plus, it will be the first time I will have spoken with some team members! With about two months to go, this seemed like the next logical step.
(By the way faithful readers, tonight marks the 150th blog entry. I hope you are finding at least some of this helpful!)

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

HamMac test drive

I got a call from Paul tonight. He's on his way to a faraway place for the last half of November to participate in the CQ WW DX CW contest, and to soak up some sun, I'm sure. Very nice, indeed!
Another thing we discussed is the possibility of organizing conference calls for the group beginning in early December. Assuming we get the flights, licenses, and remainder of the logistics managed, we've still got lots of things to resolve as a group. For example, many (all?) of us are likely going to bring our Buddipole systems, but they are an awkward size for carrying on an airplane. The systems with the 16-foot masts collapse down to about 41 inches when packed, too long for a typical piece of luggage.
Instead of having everybody try to manage this themselves, it might be better to have one or two of us bring hard-sided golf cases like The Vault which can easily hold several antenna systems. Two of these would likely hold all of the antennas, masts, tripods, coax, rope, and other antenna materials we might have. That seems like a reasonable plan, but we should work this out as a team. This might be agenda item one when conference calls begin.
I spent this evening installing software and otherwise familiarizing myself with my new MacBook affectionately named "HamMac". HamMac seems solid, is very good on batteries, and has, so far, been able to run everything I've installed on it without incident. Tonight I installed:
Finally, I decided it would be right and fitting if tonight's post were made from HamMac, and so it is. Easy as pie.
I believe the accommodations on Montserrat have Internet access so I'll be posting each day while on the island (along with making updates to the DXpedition web site). Of course a few pictures will probably make their way to the blog and the web site, too!

Monday, November 13, 2006

Licensing - part deux

The group made the decision today to resubmit our licensing applications to the island. Just so we're clear: this is my fault. I sent the original applications to the address found on the ARRL web site here using this application. I knew that the capital city Plymouth had been buried under many meters of ash and debris from the Soufriere Hills Volcano eruption in 1995, but I had assumed that the mail would be redirected to the new capital offices. I was wrong.
So, today we agreed to collect all the materials again. In the mean time, our contacts on the island will be nailing down the correct mailing address for this stuff so I don't send this next batch into oblivion, too. With luck, and perhaps the correct address and postage, we'll have our licenses in a few weeks.
In the mean time, it looks like Chris has nearly secured our flights on that last leg of the journey. Carib Aviation will be providing us with a charter. Because we will be taking one of Carib's larger aircraft, we'll have plenty of room for the seven of us, and the pile of equipment we'll all be bringing. I think we'll all feel better once this very last step in our travel plans is finally settled.
Assuming we get the licenses and the flights finalized soon, we will have done all the travel planning we can do for now. Actually getting to the island will then depend on the weather, and to some degree, the volcano.
The Montserrat Volcano Observatory has an alert level indicator for the public. It has been at "3" for a while but that could change quickly, and we all know it. Here's what "3" means:
"Confined dome growing rapidly, or growing to the west or north; or, unconfined dome growing towards the east or south. Dome may be changing its direction of growth, or there may be high levels of gas or long-period seismicity, or moderate levels of swarms or tremor. May be moderate to high levels of rockfalls and pyroclastic flows with associated light to moderate ash fall.
"This level of activity could include pyroclastic flows and light to moderate ash falls. There will be increased Government public information on the situation. Government will also be reviewing their evacuation procedures and plans. Continued testing of the siren system. Read your Guide to Volcanic Hazards. YOU SHOULD BE LISTENING TO RADIO ZJB FOR REGULAR UPDATES AND ADVICE."
While I've got about a pile of radio books that need to be read (or reread), I think I'd like to read a little about volcanos before I leave for this wonderful place. There aren't many places on the Earth where there are active volcanos and I'll be near one of them. This will be my second volcano (my first was the big island of Hawaii) and I confess I'm fascinated by them. This is going to be a great trip!


Weekly status Nov 12

I just finished the status report for the VP2M group, something I try to do about once a week. With a little over two months to go, we've got lots to do!
Our issues are:
  • Transportation: We all have flights that get us to Antigua but the last leg, from Antigua to Montserrat, has yet to be booked. Carib Aviation is the only carrier that goes there. Chris is working out those details.
  • Licenses: The instructions on the ARRL web site are out of date. Bob has tracked down the new offices that handle this: the Ministry of Communications & Works. (Sounds like something from Monty Python to me, but it is a British colony, I guess). Bob is going to figure out if they have received our materials. If they have, then fine. If they have not, we need to resubmit them {sigh}. We'll try to have a ham on the island walk through all this paperwork if we do resubmit.
  • Power: It sounds mundane after the stuff above, but we need to know the shape of the power outlets on the island so we can bring the right adapters.
  • HTs: It was suggested by Paul that we all bring HTs to the island. Just from a safety point-of-view, this is an excellent idea. It was something I was going to put into the DXpedition manual (if I ever had time to work on it).

We've got a good group and we've now split up most of the outstanding work. I'm still pulling together stuff for the web site, working on the legal forms, and just finished the very cool DXpedition T-shirts (that I talked about the other night.
We've still not discussed equipment, specific plans for activities on the island, or worked out all the other details on our wish list. For example, Chris and I spoke on the phone just a few minutes ago about doing audio recordings of as much on-air activity we can manage. I've already looked into some MP3 recording units such as the EDIROL R-09 WAVE MP3 recorder and the Zoom Audio H4. A small mixer is also not out of the question. All this will make great additions to the web site when we are done.

Sunday, November 12, 2006


I wanted to do computer-based logging while on Monsterrat but was a little nervous hauling my 17" PowerBook on the trip. What I needed was a smaller, lighter, and, to be honest, cheaper alternative so I could cut down on my weight, and risk, but still have a reliable computer. Having more options would also be nice. Being able to run some version of Windows directly on the machine (in addition to MacOS X) would mean I would have the ability to do anything that was supported by either operating system.
I had done some experimentation with parallels last month and found it ran Windows 98 quite nicely. You can find that post here. I was able to do rig control, run Ham Radio Deluxe and N1MM logger, and even use the RIGTalk to make the connection between the radio and the computer.
With these experiments a success, I took the plunge today and purchased a new MacBook now dubbed HamMac (pronounced like "hammock"). I got the stock, low-end model with the 13-inch screen and 1.83 GHz processor. The unit performs well and it only took me a few minutes to transfer the work I had done on the Mac mini to the new machine and get things up-and-running.
I'll be trying some other stuff between now and departure, but I think I'm in pretty good shape on this part of the equipment planning. Of course, the thing I need to do next it put it on the scale (it should come in at about 5 pounds + the charger).

Friday, November 10, 2006

The plane! The plane!

A small wrinkle in our Montserrat plans has cropped up. It seems Gerald's Airport on Montserrat closed for some time in October. An article in The Montserrat Reporter said the airport closed for a couple days and had cancelled flights a couple more. This disquieting quote from that article has certainly gotten our attention:
The situation is aggravated by the many complaints of the lack of information regarding cancelled flights where the public is left in limbo after check-in, both in Antigua and Montserrat, and not being told very little or nothing about what steps are being taken to get them to their destination.
Our plan is still to get an airplane ride from Antigua to Montserrat, but this revelation has made us start to consider other options such as a boat charter. There are seven of us so even $1000 round trip for the group would be under $150 a head. Of course we'd like to do it for less, but at this point we've got to find a reliable way to get on, and off, the island.
I was monstrously busy at work this week (hence the skimpy postings to the blog) but I think I might make a phone call down to the Montserrat Tourist Board and ask, "just what the heck is going on down there?!"

Thursday, November 09, 2006

T-shirts ordered

I just finished the T-shirt design for the Montserrat group. I've been doing my custom T-shirts through Cafe Press. Their build a custom product interface is pretty easy and the results are OK. You just upload some graphics images to their site, select the products you wish to customize, and set a quantity to buy. The site even gives you a picture of your proposed product that you can review before you finalize your order. The order for these new shirts for each team member was just placed a few minutes ago. I love the web.
I made a big batch of shirts with the 100 Pound DXpedition designs this summer and they've stood up pretty well. The original Montserrat team members have already received one of these shirts. The two new fellows will get one, too, when this order ships.
Cafe Press offers two types of printing: direct printing and heat transfer. The first batch of shirts I bought used the direct printing method and the colors were a little faded. That said, they've been through the washer a number of times now and they still look pretty good.
Later in the summer I decided to order a shirt (and some other stuff) and I tried the heat transfer method. Those shirts had images with much better color saturation but I can see how they might not be as durable through many laundry cycles. If you decide to use these guys, I recommend ordering one shirt with each printing technology and assess for yourself which works best for your purposes.
Here's the shirt design (back):

The new Montserrat shirts look even more cool, sporting the Montserrat team logo and our new slogan: Not rare, but well done! As soon as those shirts arrive I'll repackage them and send them off to the team members. I can't wait to do our group picture on the island. That will look great on the QSL card!

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

RIGtalk work-in-progress

Some time ago I wrote that I had purchased some RIGtalk USB rig control interface devices from West Mountain Radio. The device comes complete with a cable for your particular radio (choose that when you buy the particular model) and a CDROM with the drivers for Windows.
I normally run MacOS X on my Macintosh, not Windows. So, one of the challenges I have is locating drivers for the device. When I first got the package, I used a strong magnifying glass to peek into the device and read the part number off the main interfacing chip. So far, so good. It was then an easy task to use Google to find the manufacturer and locate the drivers they had posted on their web site. Sure enough, there were Macintosh MacOS X drivers. Well, that's the end of the good news. I have tried and tried but I just can't make it work. That is, the operating system doesn't present a serial device that can be opened by a program.
Just to make sure the device itself wasn't broken, I got this idea a couple of weeks ago to test the device on my new Mac mini running Parallels with N1MM logger (though any rig control software should work). After getting Windows 98 loaded on to the machine, I was able to install the drivers from the provided CDROM, plug the RIGtalk device into an available USB port on the Mac mini, and voila!, it worked! Note to Windows users: this works great right out of the box with the drivers shipped with the device.
So, I know the hardware works. And, if I decide that it would be better to use a PC/DOS logger on Montserrat (just for speed reasons, certainly not because they have a better interface!), this part of the system is tested. I would still like to make this work with MacOS X and MacLoggerDX, my primary logging program. There was some chatter on the email support list for MLDX over the last couple of days and it was suggested that somebody contact West Mountain Radio and volunteer to be a guinea pig for any new drivers they might have for this device. I will likely do that in the next day or so.
The extra work I might have to do to make this happen is well worth it. The RIGtalk interface is mind-bogglingly small, which would save both weight and precious space within my Pelican case. I would really like to make this work! We'll see if I can between now and departure time for the Montserrat trip.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Paradise (licensing applications) Lost

With apologies to Milton, we've hit something of a bump in the road in the Montserrat planning. The licensing applications we had sent to the island in September have yet to produce any results. We're now concerned that the address we'd gotten off of the ARRL web site might not get the package to the right offices on the island after all. If that's the case, this is my screw-up. Drat.
Luckily, I was able to come up with another resource familiar with the island. Art Blank (WA7NB) was working the CQ WW DX contest and I was able to work him while he was VP2MDY on the island of Montserrat. After we did the exchange, Art said, "Aren't you the Buddipole DXpedition guy?" I cranked up the power from 5 watts to 100 so we could have an easier time talking and told him, "Yes!" We then chatted for just a moment and he said he would be happy to answer any questions we might have about the island. Boy do I have questions!
I wrote to him the other night and he replied almost immediately with lots of good information, including some new contacts on the island that might help us get our licensing approved (or at least be able to help us assess the status of our applications). A couple of guys in the group are now working through these new channels to discover the fate of our paperwork. That's the great thing about this group: guys just see something needs to be done and they pick up the task and run with it. This trip is really going to be fun!
I know I am repeating myself, but, one of the best assets you can have is somebody local to the place you are visiting. Talking to people who have visited there in the past can also be a boon. Though it is hard work and sometimes depends on a little luck (as with my chance meeting with Art on 15m), it can mean the difference between guessing and asking somebody who knows. That is, it makes all the difference in the world.
When I learn something either way on the licenses I'll post it right here. I sure hope I didn't goof up and send that package of applications to some administrative black hole someplace... {sigh}

Sunday, November 05, 2006

CQ WW DX SSB 2006 analysis

I just finished the status report for the Montserrat group. This is nothing more than a mail message that gets sent to the group highlighting what has been done, what is left to do, and issues we still have to resolve. I find that having a single punch list to work from makes planning, and assessment of our current state, easier to do.
After I finished that task, I decided to give last weekend's contesting effort one last look. The 3830 reflector, which provides a place for contesters to dump their estimated scores so we can all compare notes, provided a summary for the various categories. I was in the "single operator, all band, QRP" category. A few other folks also dumped their score on the rumors list, so we can now do a little analysis. (Remember, this isn't official; this is just data from those who decided to contribute to the list.) Here's the raw data for this year:

Call QSOs Zones Cntry hr Score Club
K8ZT 350 70 184 28.5 231,902 Cuyahoga Falls ARC
N1TM 268 51 142 131,819 YCCC
N7IR 210 54 88 79,094 CADXA
NE1RD 182 48 94 24+? 61,202 YCCC
K7HBN 212 37 67 20 60,320 WWDXC
K4JAF 110 35 63 4 28,714 FCG
KR1ST 100 25 52 a few 20,750

I put in a better effort this year (over last), but many others did as well. Here are the top 9 from last year. Note that 2005 scores are 'official' and 2006 scores are estimated.

Last year we had:
# Call 2005 score 2006 score DELTA
1 KO1H 649,399
2 KA1LMR 495,818
3 K8ZT 193,048 231,902 +38,854
4 N1TM 108,100 131,819 +23,719
5 K3GM/1 50,700
6 N8XA 18,853
7 N3HU 18,679
8 NE1RD 13,275 60,320 +47,045
9 W4DEC 5,408

I clearly win 'most improved' of the three I know about. If I my score from this year in 2005, I would have slid up to 5th (up from 8th). That's cool.
The band-by-band analysis is interesting.

Call 160m Q/Z/C 80m Q/Z/C 40m Q/Z/C 20m Q/Z/C 15m Q/Z/C 10m Q/Z/C
K8ZT 6/ 2/ 2 16/ 7/ 8 20/ 9/ 15 162/24/ 80 106/16/ 54 40/12/ 25
N1TM 2/ 2/ 2 2/ 2/ 2 49/12/ 28 123/17/ 60 57/ 8/ 18 34/ 8/ 18
N7IR 3/ 2/ 3 7/ 5/ 4 4/ 4/ 3 44/16/ 22 108/20/ 38 44/ 7/ 18
NE1RD / / 23/ 6/ 12 18/ 9/ 10 73/15/ 31 59/14/ 35 9/ 4/ 6
K7HBN 0/ 0/ 0 0/ 0/ 0 0/ 0/ 0 108/19/ 30 103/17/ 36 1/ 1/ 1
K4JAF / / / / / / 32/12/ 21 77/22/ 41 1/ 1/ 1
KR1ST 1/ 1/ 1 / / / / 39/10/ 23 41/10/ 24 19/ 4/ 4

I appear to be pretty competitive on 80 and 40. It is the tribander bands where I get ravaged. In fact, K7HBN, K4JAF, and KR1ST worked those bands exclusively (save 1 QSO on topband). The advantages of having some gain on 10m was especially pronounced. The top 3 had 34-44 QSOs; I had 9.
I competed in this contest with just a single G5RV antenna. What this data tells me is: I'm probably performing adequately from an operator skills point of view. It is lack of an antenna with gain on the top 3 contesting bands that is preventing me from scoring more points; it isn't that I'm not making good use of what I have.
This last point is the important one. I love operating QRP because I love the challenge. I also believe that it is an excellent way to hone your operating skills. These are skills I'll need if I go to some faraway and exotic place!
The other point to make is for all of you with great stations at home: if you go on one of these 100 Pound DXpeditions, you won't be bringing your "A" game. You won't have a tower, tribander, stacked monobanders, or even amplifiers. You'll need to perform well with limited equipment, and limited antenna options. I believe operating in these contests with just wire antennas and low power (or even QRP) are great practice for the kinds of working conditions you'll likely have on your lightweight DXpedition. You can't bring more (and live within the weight budget) so you have to make the most of what you do have.
The ARRL November Sweepstakes SSB is November 18-20. I have an opportunity to do a couple of things for that contest. I could operate low power (100w) and work on my 5 band Worked All States award. I might also try the N1MM logger running under Parallels to see if that is a viable alternative to MacLoggerDX. My intention is still to run with MacLoggerDX while on Montserrat, but I'd like a second option should the QSO rate go too high. This contest gives me an opportunity to try this second option.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Montserrat trip planning moving to next phase

This week brought about lots of activity within the Buddipole Users on Montserrat group. The web site was updated with a new logo and biographies for the two new operators, plane tickets were purchased for all but the last leg of the journey, and we've agreed on a hotel in Orlando for the staging both going to, and coming from, the island. Whew! Hopefully Chris (W6HFP) will get that charter flight booked early next week and we can declare the logistics part of this planning completed.
As I stated in one of the mail messages I sent to our group this week, I'd like to now start the discussion regarding equipment we will all be bringing. I look for that process to begin as soon as this weekend. All the things you can think of immediately (transceivers, power supplies, microphones, paddles, feed lines, antennas) will most certainly make the list, but there are other things less obvious that also need to be taken. For example, we should have at least one tool set with soldering iron, an antenna analyzer, and SLA battery charger. There are seven operators. We don't need seven antenna analyzers. Nor do we need seven tool sets. We should plan ahead so that everything we need is taken, duplication is minimized, and the weight of those items is distributed among the seven members. That way we can have what we need yet still live (collectively) within the 100 pound limit imposed upon us.
The other thing I mentioned in a message to our group was my desire to begin adding content to the web site. Here are some things I'm considering:
  • Descriptions of potential operating locations. We hope to work from beach, volcano observatory, etc. Describe our goals and current plans (Battery? Solar? 100W? QRP? Overnight? High bands? Low bands?)
  • I'd like to get some pictures and descriptions of the Gingerbread Hill villas on the site to show people where we'll be staying.
  • More information about Montserrat. I have raw materials for this section but have not yet had time to create it.
  • A whole section will be made available upon our arrival for the on-line log. I'm working out those details now.
  • A whole section should be made regarding our equipment. We might even have one page per operator describing what they brought, what it weighed, and why they made that decision.

Finally, I only tonight learned that the long anticipated Low Band Coil option for the Buddipole was made available the middle of last month. I knew that it was in the works (and had been for some time) but I had been so busy with other things that I'd completely missed the announcement. I ordered it immediately upon seeing it, of course. {grin} I'll try it out during the ARRL November Sweepstakes contest (November 18-20). I should be able to do some A/B comparisons between the 80m Buddipole vertical and my G5RV. Of course I'll report my results here!

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Montserrat team finalized

I have more exciting news about the Montserrat DXpedition trip. We had kept it under wraps for a while but one team member, Dan Gagnon (WZ1P) , had to drop out because of a conflict. Dan has provided valuable input during the trip's planning process and will continue to be an active team member, though he won't be going to the island with us in January. We had hoped to go with seven operators so a careful search was made to complete the team. That search ended this week.
Bob Follett (AB7ST) and Tom Clarke (W4OKW) have agreed to join us on the adventure. You can read about our newest team members on the biography page of the VP2M Dxpedition web site. Their additions bring the team up to lucky seven members.
Our villas in Gingerbread Hill will comfortably house our team, though we'll be bunking together even before we arrive. Most of us need to rendezvous in Orlando for our very early flight Monday morning (29 Jan), we've decided to fly in Sunday afternoon and split some hotel rooms in the Hyatt that night. This will also give us one last chance for an equipment check (and that last trip to Radio Shack if we've goofed up something). And, since our flights arrive so late on the return trip, we've decided to bunk there again on Tuesday, February 6th.
The last step is to book the charter from Antigua to the island. We hope to get a Twin Otter that will comfortably haul all of us, and our equipment (100 pounds each, remember?) with a little room and luxury. Perhaps that will be settled tomorrow.