Of Belts and Suspenders

All too often, I hear about some unfortunate ham who lost their computer-based log files due to some hardware or software failure. I don’t know about you, but just the thought of losing a decade or more of QSO data gives me the chills. 

Back in my working days as a Systems Engineer, I was called upon a few times to develop contingency plans for large computer systems and networks. While working on those projects, I would continually ask myself, “What would we do if…” 

As a result of all that, I still think about backup plans and backups for those backups. One customer once told me I was a belt and suspenders kind of guy; one method of holding up my pants just wasn’t enough.

The Problem in a Nut Shell

Storing your log files—or any data that’s important to you—in one place is a recipe for disaster. Hard drives can and do fail. (Been there, done that.) If your log file only exists on that failed hard drive, you’re out of luck.

The obvious solution is to keep a copy of your log somewhere other than your hard drive. I’ve had computers fail on me a few times over the years, and I was thankful I had backup copies of my important files.

External Storage Media

The easiest way to backup your log files is to create copies of them on removable storage media, such as an external hard drive, USB flash drive, or SD memory card. 

The cost of storage devices has dropped significantly over the years. You can get a 1TB external hard drive these days for less than $50. I have a 1T USB-connected drive that I use to backup all of my data, including my log files. 

If you’re just concerned with backing up your log files, a USB flash drive or an SD memory card is an inexpensive way to go. I often see 32GB flash drives for less than $10. I also use a thumb drive for an extra nightly backup of my logs. (Remember the belt and suspenders thing?)

If you’re an N3FJP ACLog user, you have an easy way to back up your logs. You can configure ACLog to save a backup each time you close the program. So, if you attach an external storage device (flash drive, SD memory card, etc.) to your computer, your backups will happen automatically. I do this with SD memory cards on each of my laptops. So, when I’m logging in the field with no Internet access, I’m still backing up my logs. More belts and suspenders. 

Off-Site Storage

Back in the day, the computer systems I worked with regularly transported copies of their backups to another location across town. These off-site backups ensured that copies of data would survive a catastrophic event in the computer room. Hopefully, none of us ever face that situation.

For off-site storage, you could make a copy of your log data on removable media and take it to another location for safe-keeping. I’m too lazy for that. Thanks to the magic of the Internet, however, there are ways to do this electronically—and for free.

An easier way is to use cloud-based storage. There are several cloud storage providers, and most of them offer a no-cost option. I use Dropbox and Google Drive for my ham radio logs.

I keep my main log files (N3FJP ACLog and SKCC Logger) in a Dropbox folder that gets replicated to all of my computers. This approach allows me to run those logging programs on any of my computers using the same database. It also keeps a copy on Dropbox’s server.  For good measure, I also backup my logs to Google Drive. (There are the belt and suspenders again.) 

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Logbook of the World as an off-site backup method. If you routinely upload to LoTW, you have a backup of at least the rudimentary information about your QSOs (callsign, date, time, band, mode, etc.). In my case, there is information in my logs that isn’t captured by LoTW. So, restoring from LoTW would be the last resort for me.

My approach to backing up my logs might be overkill, but I can always restores my logs in the event of a computer failure.
My approach to backing up my logs might be overkill, but I can always restore my logs in the event of a computer failure.

Making It All Happen

I make nightly backups of all my logs to an external hard drive, a thumb drive, and Google Drive. If I was disciplined enough, I could manually copy the necessary files to all three locations. Knowing me, though, that probably wouldn’t be a very reliable option.

So, I use backup software to automate all that. I use a paid version of SyncBakSE, but there are lots of other options available. I know Windows has a built-in backup capability, for example, but I have no experience using it.

Wrap-Up

Admittedly, my approach is somewhat overkill, bordering on paranoia. I’m not suggesting that you should do the same; I’m just offering up some possibilities for your consideration. 

Regardless of how you do it, please make regular backup copies of your logs or any other data that’s important to you. Someday, if your computer goes belly-up, you’ll be awful glad you did.

73, Craig WB3GCK

If It’s Metal, Load It Up!

On one of the several ham radio mailing lists I subscribe to, there was some recent discussion about unusual antennas. You know—bed springs, light bulbs, and the like. It brought to mind a memorable QSO I had 27 years ago.

In the July 1993 issue of QSTRod Newkirk W9BRD (later VA3ZBB, now SK) wrote an article about building small, multi-turn loop antennas[1]. If his name doesn’t ring a bell for you, Rod wrote the “How’s DX?” column in QST from 1947 to 1978 and coined the term, “Elmer.” 

Although I never actually built one of Rod’s loops, I found the article fascinating. At the end of the article, Rod noted that he conducted his loop antenna experiments in the partially-underground cellar of his Chicago home. Remarkable!

Fast-forward to September 1993. I went downstairs to my basement shack one evening and fired up my old MFJ-9030 on 30M CW. I had three QSOs that night; one of them was with—you guessed it—W9BRD. 

During our QSO, Rod mentioned that he was using one of his experimental mini-loops indoors in his shack. When I told him I was running 5 watts into my rainspout, he sent back, “Hey, if it’s metal, load it up.” According to my log, we chatted for about 12 minutes before signing.

Needless to say, that contact put a smile on my face. It was the kind of QSO I really enjoy—one with a station using an unusual set-up or operating in a unique location. I guess you could say this QSO checked both of those boxes. Not to mention that I had just worked a very well-known figure in Amateur Radio.

QSL card from W9BRD documenting our unusual QSO in 1993.
QSL card from W9BRD documenting our unusual QSO in 1993.

I fired off a QSL card to Rod to acknowledge our QSO and to let him know that I enjoyed his loop article. Before too long, I received a card back from Rod. His typewritten note on the back of the card continued the theme of our QSO. It read, in part: “Hey, if your XYL uses gold or silver thread for that needlepoint, let’s try loading it up, Craig.” He also wrote about his experiences with rainspout antennas, including his attempt to feed a particularly stubborn one.

Rear of W9BRD's QSL card: DR OB Craig -- Hey, if your XYL uses god or silver thread for that needlepoint, let's try loading it up, Craig. Thanks for your gratifying "Shrinker" comments. Rainspouts have been kind to me, too. All except one which was a 40-meter halfwave grounded at one end. Totally anti-resonant on 40 and 20. NO WAY could I get power into it. Not bad on 80, though, shunt fed. Take cre -- CUL -- VY 73 . . . . Rod
Rear of W9BRD’s QSL card

From articles I have read, it’s clear that Rod had a penchant for assembling and experimenting with unusual antennas. His daughter, Amanda, once wrote: “He especially loved discovering how much of a signal he could achieve with his various objects: the coffee cans, cookie tins, piles of wire and boxes and tidbits—out of which he wrung quite magical things.”[2]

When it comes to unusual antennas, Rod was a man after my own heart. Over the past 27 years, his words from our QSO have been my mantra: “If it’s metal, load it up!”

Thanks for the inspiration, Rod.

73, Craig WB3GCK

References:
[1] Newkirk (W9BRD), Rod. “Honey, I Shrunk the Antenna.” QST, July 1993, pp. 34-35, 39.
[2] Newkirk (WN9PMC), Amanda. “On Being W9BRD’s Daughter.” K9YA Telegraph, Vol 11, Issue 9, September 2014, pp. 2-3. (K9YA Telegraph website)

My Activities of Late

I haven’t been posting much here lately. The COVID-19 pandemic and other family obligations have been cutting into my ham radio activities. Nevertheless, I do have a few projects in the works.

A few weeks ago, I started another project in my ongoing series of speaker wire antennas. This one will be a variant of the bi-square antenna. This antenna has the potential to be a little more field-friendly than the delta loop I tested last month. It’s all built; I just need to get out somewhere to set it up and see how it works.

I’ll file my next project under the category of Old Dogs/New Tricks. Back in December, I bought a Kenwood TH-D74a HT. That gave me the ability to reach a nearby D-Star repeater. This week, I purchased an MMDVM hotspot to go along with it. I plan to spend some time in the coming days getting it set up. I’m hoping to be able to eventually connect to the DMR talk groups used by my ARRL section and local ARES-RACES groups. Fortunately, my local group has some experienced hotspot users I can consult if I run into any snags. Wish me luck.

Sadly, our camping season with our little QRP Camper is off to a late start. State park campgrounds in our area have been closed due to pandemic. We have reservations at a state park in Maryland next month, however, and it looks that might be our first trip of the year. I’m looking forward to a little QRP-portable operating from the camper.

My local QRP club has started making plans for Field Day. We have a set of social-distancing guidelines we’ll be following this year. We’ll be limiting the number of participants, keeping our tents at least 10 feet apart, and eliminating common eating areas. Also, we won’t be sharing stations and equipment. This year’s Field Day will be different, for sure. 

Other than that, I’ve been active on our local ARES-RACES nets, and I have been checking into the Pennsylvania NBEMS Net on Sunday mornings. 

You can also find me on 40M or 80M CW in the evening. I usually hang out around the SKCC watering holes.

I’ll be posting more on all of this stuff in the coming weeks. Until then, stay safe, and I’ll see you on the air. 

73, Craig WB3GCK

USNTC Bainbridge Fire

I came across a news item posted in one of the U.S. Navy Facebook groups I follow. There was a fire at what is left of one of my duty stations from back in the early 1970s. It was where I went through Navy Radioman School and learned the Morse Code.

Here’s a link to the article: Historic Naval Training Center Burns Down on Susquehanna River

The fire at the former Bainbridge U.S. Naval Training Center in Port Deposit, Maryland. I don't recognize the building in this picture. (Photo: Maryland State Fire Marshal/ Facebook)
The fire at the former Bainbridge U.S. Naval Training Center in Port Deposit, Maryland. I don’t recognize the building in this picture. (Photo: Maryland State Fire Marshal/ Facebook)

I was stationed at the U.S. Naval Training Center, Bainbridge, in Port Deposit, Maryland, from November of 1970 through April of 1971. The base was very old then, but there was some history to it. Bainbridge first served as a Navy training center for new recruits (aka boot camp) during World War II. After that, it was home to a variety of Navy schools, including the Radioman School that I attended.

The old wooden barracks were pretty decrepit, by the time I got there. While the accommodations at Bainbridge weren’t the best, I still have some good memories of the short time I spent there.

The Navy deactivated the base in 1976, and the expansive property has been mostly vacant and over-grown since then. Fortunately, the Bainbridge Museum is just down the road in Port Deposit, Maryland. They have captured a lot of old photographs and items from the old base. I paid a visit to the museum back in 2009. It was a walk down Memory Lane for sure.

The Bainbridge Museum in Port Deposit, Maryland
The Bainbridge Museum in Port Deposit, Maryland

So, thanks to Bainbridge Naval Training Center for getting me formally trained in radio and CW. Almost 50 years later, I’m still using much of what I learned there.

73, Craig WB3GCK

Morse Code Day 2020

It’s that time of year again. Today is Morse Code Day. Celebrated each year on April 27th, Morse Code Day coincides with the birth of Samual F.B. Morse (1791-1872).

Samuel F.B. Morse circa 1840 (Open-source image)
Samuel F.B. Morse (circa 1840)

Morse contributed to the development of the single-wire telegraph and developed the encoding method, which bears his name. But, of course, you probably already knew that.

I’m always amazed that I still use a means of communication that was first used in 1844. CW has been my favorite mode since I learned the code in Navy Radioman school nearly 50 years ago.

So, have a happy Morse Code Day. I hope to hear you on the air today!

73, Craig WB3GCK

Checklists for Portable Operations

Nothing can bring a portable radio outing to a screeching halt faster than forgetting to pack a critical item—an adapter, a cable, or heaven forbid, a radio. Been there, done that. My solution is a detailed checklist for such occasions.

At some point in my life, I became an obsessive checklist maker. Back when I was still working for a living, I relied heavily on checklists for my daily to-do list, things I needed to prepare for meetings, and the like. I naturally carried that habit over into my ham radio hobby.

Ham Radio Checklists

I keep a variety of checklists handy for different types of operating. A few of my standard checklists are:

  • Hiking
  • Bike-portable
  • Stationary-mobile operating from my truck
  • Operating from the camper

I also keep some checklists for some special events:

  • Field Day
  • Our annual summer vacation

For those one-off, ad hoc events, I sit down in advance to prepare a special checklist of things I need to take. 

I know all this sounds like a no-brainer, but I wasn’t blessed with the greatest of memories. When I try to take a shortcut around this process, the risk of forgetting an important item goes way up.

Preparing the Checklist

When developing a checklist, I do a mental walk-through of my setup in the field. I simply try to visualize setting up and make a detailed list of the things I’ll need. This method works for simple setups. For more complex set-ups, I sketch it out on paper and make my checklist from that.

An even better approach is to assemble the equipment at home. Then you can do a detailed inventory of your equipment to form your checklist.

When I prepare a checklist, I first list out the containers (backpack, box, bag, etc.) that I’ll be using to carry the equipment. Next, I list out everything that needs to be in those containers. I indent these items on the checklist below the container.

As items are packed in a container, I check them off. Then, as the containers are loaded into my truck, they are checked off. 

I also keep a list of things I need to do before the event. I call this my pre-flight checklist. I use this list to make sure batteries are charged, my truck’s GPS is programmed, and the like. 

The Mechanics

For years, I created my lists using a word processor. When it was time to pack, I just printed them out. That works fine, but I now use a paperless method.

I now use an application called Evernote to keep my checklists. My checklists are stored in the cloud, so I can access them from any of my computers and even my cellphone. I can check off items on my phone as I’m packing. After the event, I just go in and un-check the items, and the checklist is ready to go for the next outing.

A portion of a checklist as it looks in the Evernote app on my cellphone
A portion of a checklist as it looks in the Evernote app on my cellphone

You can get a basic Evernote account for free. There are paid options for folks (like me) who need additional capabilities and features.

Some “Pro Tips”

Here are a few lessons I’ve learned over the years:

  • Don’t be too quick to check off an item. If you check off an item before it is physically in the container or loaded into your vehicle, you’ll eventually run into problems. Don’t ask me how I know this; just trust me on this one.
  • After an event, take a few minutes to update your checklist, if needed. Was there something you wish you had brought or should have left at home? Some of my frequently-used checklists have been evolving for decades. 

Wrap-up

So there you have it. I know this is a somewhat mundane topic, but checklists have saved my bacon on several occasions. 

73, Craig WB3GCK

Making a Public Spectacle of Myself

I think it’s a given: When you’re out in a public place with a radio and a 20-foot antenna pole, you’re bound to attract attention. In 26 years of portable operating, I’ve gotten more than my share of curious looks from passersby. At first, I was a little self-conscious, but now I don’t mind people wondering what this crazy old guy is up to.

For the most part, people will give my outdoor radio set-up a puzzled look and move on. Once in a while, a courageous spectator will approach me and ask what I’m doing.

There have been times when it’s a law enforcement officer who stops by. One park ranger in Delaware said she was responding to a call about “suspicious activity.” My antenna once attracted a police officer in Havre de Grace, Maryland. We wound up chatting for a bit, and he wished me luck as he drove off. 

Recently, at a local park, a fisherman yelled over to me, “Hey, ham radio guy! How are they biting?” I’m guessing we had talked at some point in the past. I replied, “Pretty good. How are they biting for you?”

One of my favorite encounters happened during last year’s Skeeter Hunt contest. A fellow who walked up to ask about my antenna turned out to be one of my earliest childhood friends. We hadn’t seen each other in decades, so I’m glad his curiosity got the better of him.

Whatever the circumstances, I found it useful to give a 30-second elevator speech about ham radio. In business, an elevator speech is a short, easy to understand pitch—one that can be delivered during a short elevator ride. I keep it simple and non-technical. Often, if it suffices to tell them: “It’s ham radio.” 

I try to be mindful of my environment. If I’m out in the woods by myself somewhere, my equipment is not likely to get in the way of other people. When I’m in a public place, however, I follow a few basic principles:

  • Stay Legal. Make sure you’re following all applicable rules for your location and, by all means, don’t trespass. If approached by authorities, be courteous and launch into your ham radio elevator speech. 
  • Stay Self-Contained. When I’m in a public place, I like to keep my equipment set-ups as compact as I can. Some parks have issues with putting wires in trees, so I’ll go with a self-supported antenna, like a vertical or small loop. That’s OK; it’s less time I have to spend cursing at trees when my throws miss the mark.
  • Don’t Become a Hazard to Others. This goes hand-in-hand with staying self-contained. I like to make sure my equipment isn’t a hazard to other people in the area, so I try to find a location away from others. I also make sure coax or counterpoise wires aren’t a trip hazard and that there’s no risk of my antenna falling on anyone.
  • Leave No Trace –  Make sure you leave the place as good as, if not better than, you found it. This is a good practice regardless of your location.
WB3GCK operating in Valley Forge National Historical Park. I was in a popular picnic area, so I chose a location away from other people. I also chose a set-up that was confined to the picnic table I was using.
WB3GCK operating in Valley Forge National Historical Park. I was in a popular picnic area, so I chose a location away from other people. I also opted for a set-up that was confined to the picnic table I was using.

Some encounters with the public have resulted in interesting discussions. Here’s a small sampling of questions and comments I’ve heard over the years:

  • “Is that a fishing pole? Catch anything?”
  • “How far can you get out with that thing?”
  • “Is ham radio still a thing?”
  • “Cool! My uncle (or some other relative) used to be into ham radio.”
  • “Are you communicating with the Mother Ship?” (I have also heard Martians and other extraterrestrial references)
  • “Can you talk to truckers with that?”
  • “Morse Code? Is that still around?”
  • “How many channels can you pick up with that thing?” (Assuming, my antenna is for TV, I suppose.)
  • “What exactly are you broadcasting?”

So, when you’re out and about, don’t be afraid of the attention you might be drawing; welcome it. You never know; you might be inspiring a future ham.

73, Craig WB3GCK

Amazing GOOP for Ham Radio

You have probably seen Amazing GOOP® in your local hardware store. This product with the funny-sounding name has been around for decades. I’ve been using it for ham radio applications for the past 25 years or so.

I recently did some extensive research on Amazing GOOP. (Full disclosure: OK. I lied. My “extensive research” merely consisted of a quick Google search and reading a Wikipedia article.) Back in 1972, a senior executive in the aerospace industry created a product called “Shoe GOO®.” Shoe GOO was intended to repair rubber-soled shoes. In fact, I first used it many years ago to repair a pair of rubber fishing waders. The original Shoe GOO is still produced by Eclectic Products. They also produce a wide variety of waterproof, flexible adhesives for a host of applications and environments. The Amazing GOOP® product line is what I’ve been using for ham radio applications.

Here are some of the uses I’ve found for it:

Sealing portable antenna connections. This was my original use for Amazing GOOP. After soldering the connections between the feedline and dipole elements, I seal them up with Amazing GOOP. I’ve never had any corrosion problems like you can run into with RTV.

This is the center connector of the doublet that I use for my "Up and Outer" antenna. I used Amazing GOOP to seal the soldered connections and help anchor the wires in place. This particular antenna was built about 15 years ago and is still holding up well.
This is the center connector of the doublet that I use for my “Up and Outer” antenna. I used Amazing GOOP to seal the soldered connections and help anchor the wires in place. This particular antenna was built about 15 years ago and is still holding up well.

Wire end loops. Instead of end insulators for my portable wire antennas, I just form small loops. I twist the wire to form a loop and use Amazing GOOP to hold the wire twists in place. (This works very well for my lightweight portable wire antennas but I would use end insulators for permanent antennas.)

End loop on one of my (many) wire antennas for portable use. I attach my throwing line directly to the loop, foregoing an insulator. With smaller diameter wire, I sometimes put some shrink wrap over the GOOP.
End loop on one of my (many) wire antennas for portable use. I attach my throwing line directly to the loop, foregoing an insulator. With smaller diameter wire, I sometimes put some shrink wrap over the GOOP.

Powerpole® connectors. I’m a “belt and suspenders” kind of guy. So, I crimp and solder my Powerpole connectors. After I assemble and test them, I apply some Amazing GOOP where the wires enter the connector housing. This provides strain relief and makes them very rugged. I also place a dab of GOOP on both ends of the roll pin. This keeps them from popping out in the field.

Miniature audio connectors. I’m hard on the little 1/8″ audio plugs I use on my CW keys. So, after soldering and testing them, I put some GOOP on the connections before screwing on the plastic housing. Then, I put some GOOP on the wires where they enter the connector to add strain relief. I also apply GOOP to spade/ring lugs after they are crimped and soldered.

A 3.5mm plug and Anderson Powerpole connector after I have applied GOOP as a strain relief. Sure, they look a bit ugly but these connectors are pretty much bomb-proof. These items have seen heavy use in the field over the past 3 or 4 years.
A 3.5mm plug and Anderson Powerpole connector after I have applied GOOP as a strain relief. Sure, they look a bit ugly but these connectors are pretty much bomb-proof. These items have seen heavy use in the field over the past 3 or 4 years.

My CW Clipboard. I used GOOP to attach the steel washers to the clipboards I use in the field. The washers are how I attach the magnetic bases of my portable paddles and straight key to the clipboard.

I used GOOP to attach the steel washers to the clipboards I use in the field. The washers are used to attach the magnet bases of my portable paddles and straight key.
I used GOOP to attach the steel washers to the clipboards I use in the field. The washers are used to attach the magnetic bases of my portable paddles and straight key.

My rainspout antenna. I use a liberal amount of GOOP to seal the connection to my trusty rainspout antenna. GOOP holds up well to the continuous exposure to the elements.

Hopefully, the pictures will clarify my descriptions.

If I can find it, I use one of the GOOP varieties intended for outdoor use for my rainspout and portable wire antennas. Right now, I’m using Amazing GOOP Max. Regular old household variety of Amazing GOOP is fine for most uses, though. For all applications, I like to let the GOOP cure overnight before use.

A few disclaimers are in order:

  • This stuff is permanent. Be sure whatever you’re using it on works before sealing it up with GOOP.
  • This stuff works for me, as described. I don’t know what you’re using it for or how you’re using it, so your results may vary.
  • I have absolutely no financial interests in this product. I’m just a satisfied consumer.

So, that’s it. I hope you found it useful.

73, Craig WB3GCK

Reference Links:

175 Years of Morse Code

No, not me personally! But, today is actually the 175th anniversary of the first telegraph transmission from Baltimore to Washington, D.C. on May 24, 1844. Here’s an excellent article on the history of the Morse Code:

Simply elegant, Morse code marks 175 years and counting

It’s remarkable that Morse Code is still being used today. Bravo, Mr. Morse! It’s been a part of my life ever since I went through Navy Radioman School in 1970. It’s still my favorite ham radio mode and I’m proud to help keep the tradition alive.

My trusty J-38 straight key - wb3gck.com
My trusty J-38 straight key – wb3gck.com

So, get on the air today and make a CW contact or two.

73, Craig WB3GCK

The Passing of a QRP Legend

Browsing through my Facebook feed this morning, I was sad to learn of Joe Everhart’s passing. If you are at all involved with QRP or Parks on the Air, Joe’s callsign, N2CX, should be very familiar to you.

I first met Joe back in the early 90s, while we were both employed by the same company. With our common interest in QRP, we continued to cross paths through the years.

Joe was a talented engineer and freely shared his extensive technical knowledge with his fellow hams. Joe’s articles appeared in a variety ham radio publications. I particularly enjoyed his ongoing series of “Technical Quickies” in each issue of QRP Quarterly. The next issue of QRP Quarterly will contain his 109th and final “Quickie.” Joe was a tireless tinkerer and we all benefited from his experiments.

Joe Everhart N2CX during an NPOTA activation at Valley Forge National Historic Park. I took this picture during an "eyeball QSO" with Joe in April 2016.
Joe Everhart N2CX during an NPOTA activation at Valley Forge National Historic Park. I took this picture during an “eyeball QSO” with Joe in April 2016.

As an activator in Parks on the Air (POTA) and World-Wide Flora and Fauna (WWFF), Joe was a machine. He traveled all over, activating countless parks at a dizzying pace. As of this writing, Joe was number 3 on the POTA list of Top Activators of All Time. I always enjoyed reading the recaps of Joe’s activations on Facebook or the QRP-L mailing list. He was a natural story teller with a great sense of humor.

So, thank you, Joe, for the advice and guidance you provided to me and others over the years. Looking back at our many QSOs in my log, it’s sad to think there won’t be any more. It was an honor to know you and you will be missed.

Rest in peace, my friend.

72, Craig WB3GCK