Wednesday, September 27, 2017

CW Academy - Lesson 5

The key to learning morse code is practice, practice, practice. Obviously copying is the focus for most people as it is very challenging. Any time I find a few minutes I throw the earbuds in and practice copying. I definitely exceed the suggested one hour practice time per day.
What I did not do very well for the first three lessons was practice sending. During the three days prior to Lesson 4 I started adding sending practice to the mix. Morse Trainer not only has the copy content in it but it also provides words for sending. You play the word and then you try to emulate it exactly as you key it. I thought I would show you what I use.

This setup is extremely easy to transport everywhere I go which allows me to practice just about anywhere. The paddles are a kit from American Morse Equipment and are called DCP (Dirt Cheap Paddles). The kit is $49 US shipped to your door (domestic). I built the kit at work one day over lunch and it is very simple to do. The keyer is a kit from HamGadgets and is called the Ultra PicoKeyer. Be sure to read up on this because it packs alot of features for what you pay for it including memories to store those repetitive transmissions for field day or contesting. It is $34.95 and shipping needs to be added. It was my first attempt at kit building and I found that I extremely enjoy soldering kits up and hoping they work at the end, Hi Hi. I recommend both of these products, not only for practice but for use anytime. Both companies provided me with excellent customer service as well.

So, this is what I looked like for much of our class Monday night. I felt comfortable going into class as I did not have much trouble with the lesson while studying in Morse Trainer since class 4 ended on Thursday but somewhere between 5 and 7:30 Monday my brain turned to mush. This lesson introduced  M,W, 3, 6, and our first punctuation mark, ?. At the beginning of class we started with me, one of the NC guys, and the instructor. We had one at a JOTA meeting, one absent for work, and the other Hoosier out for an unknown reason. We gained one after the Jota meeting. We started out with words and we did not have too much problem. We did have a faux pas here and there with a and n and the other struggled with d and w, but not too terrible. We then worked on call signs. I am still breaking the habit of expecting a call sign to be in a US format but I have made progress here. We moved along to copying phrases sent by the instructor. This is where I started to go downhill. I have not overcome my bad habit of dwelling on a letter that does not immediately register. I spend too much time thinking on that letter and BAM!, (No that is not an Emeril Lagasse Kick It Up A Notch BAM) I have missed the next three.

After this we were asked to send our call sign and a phrase and I was tasked to go first. Sending came a little easier but still not smooth or worthy of being on the air in my opinion. Our fellow students had to copy what we were sending. Once we completed that our instructor, Dennis, had one of us ask a question and the others had to copy. It, like most items, had to be repeated 2 to 3 times in hopes that the students copying had it complete. By this time the third student had shown up and we had to, in turn, answer the question by returning code. Two of us had some struggles during this back and forth and the third, who I believe is the most advanced in the class, seemed to do fairly well. Our time drawing to a close Dennis told us to brush up on call signs as next week we were going to work on the Morse Trainer lesson plan and we were going to do mock qso's so that we can start learning the format. Time to go study up on sending RST's and QTH's! See you closer to the end of the week.


Friday, September 22, 2017

CW Academy - Lesson 4

Greetings! Lesson 4 is in the books and with that we are 25% done with the course. During these first four lessons I have discovered what may be my biggest obstacle in learning the code. During copying, after the first couple of letters in a word are keyed, my mind immediately races to what I think the word is going to be. When the third or fourth letter is not what I expected I quickly try to regroup but then multiple letters have passed as my mind is still trying to process what the letter was that was not what I expected. At that point I am lost. So, this is a habit that I need to try and break over the next couple of lessons and train myself to copy one letter at a time.

When I signed up for the academy I had looked all over the internet for reviews or experiences from other hams. I did not find many and I really wanted to understand what it was all about. How it functioned, how you studied, how you met up for class, what you studied, etc. That is why I decided to blog my journey and I just hope that some of you reading this are finding the answers you want and I hope others are being inspired to give morse code a shot. I can not tell you how much fun I am having and I know that the fun I am having now will not compare with what is ahead once I start making contacts.

So, this week seems to be more of a review week covering the letters and numbers introduced in the first three lessons but, we do have two new letters, U and C. With that we are now working with half the letters of the alphabet and four numbers. Last week I struggled to find quality study time for lesson three but was able to find a little more this week. Remember they suggest one hour per day minimum at no longer than 30 minutes per sitting. I believe that my pre academy attempts to learn morse code were doomed from the start as I found most of my free time during my commute back and forth to work. Driving takes a ton of concentration and, at least in my case, I was not "hearing' the letters. I heard them but I did not hear them. I hope that makes sense.

Attendance this week was down. Our N. Indiana student was absent as was one of the Tarheels. We did have an issue this week with one of our students having bandwith problems and he dropped out of the Skype call multiple times over the 45-50 minutes we were in class. We started out this week in much the same manner as the others, copying words sent by the instructor. I did pretty well on this but still struggle occasionally with a and n. The problem with this is that if you think about it you will miss the next couple letters. When we practice copying the instructor will send the words, and phrases for that matter, 2 or 3 times. If we all get it faster then he queries one of us for the translation. It is mixed whether I get it quickly or not at all sometimes. Next we moved on to copying three word phrases. This was my best week yet on phrases. If you stop to think about a letter in a phrase your are really setting yourself back as you will miss words instead of letters while you think about it.

Our third task of the evening involved copying call signs. I have work to do here as my mind is locked on the US format of a one or two letter prefix, a number, and a one to three letter suffix. My mind immediately looks for that pattern and when a DX call comes around I question what I heard. I will focus on this going forward.

Next we were told to send our call sign followed by three word phrases. My fingers decided to disrespect me tonight. I am usually much better at sending but tonight got me. I was not alone as the other students had their fair share of problems as well. I have been focusing on copying and barely putting the time in on the paddles so I think I may need to allot a little more time each lesson to sending as well.

After this we finished up with both copying and sending longer phrases. We were sent a few seven word phrases and I did well. On one in particular I missed a letter in the third word and was able to shake it out of my mind and begin copying again. I picked up the last three words which helped me not bomb the entire phrase. I need to continue to condition myself.

Well, this is long enough so I am going to stop here. Lesson 5 coming up and things are going to start heating up a bit. I hope you all are enjoying the blog and if you are thinking about trying CW I encourage you to do so. It is rewarding and a load of fun!!

--... ...--
.-- ----. -... .-. ..

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

CW Academy - Lesson 3

Thank you all for following this journey to what hopefully ends up with me being a no code ham. The views on the posts about this quest are amazingly high and I appreciate the following. If only it was a paying gig, hi hi.

I looked back over the posts about the first two lessons and realized I did not cover one thing. I told you where you could go practice the lessons but I did not tell you how to set Morse Trainer up. This is information I wanted once I signed up for the course. Within Morse Trainer you can set your tone, wpm (character speed), and wpm. This is also known as the Farnsworth method. It allows you to learn the characters at the quicker speed but slows the word spacing down to make it easier. Once you have the characters down you can increase the wpm. The goal is at a full 20 wpm. We are currently running 20 wpm character speed at a 10 wpm pace. Down the road we have been told we will increase the wpm to 20. So, you have the information that will allow you to go practice on your own.

Lesson 3 adds the letters R H D and L and the numbers 2 and 5. So one week in we are working with eleven of the twenty-six letters of the alphabet and four of the ten numbers.After a pretty dismal performance last week I am happy to say I got some redemption last night.

It was a poor showing at first as there were only two students that showed up at 1930, me and one of the Tarheel guys. The other NC operator was absent due to some work travel. The other two students ended up showing up late, one of which was the N. Indiana no show from last week who was sick, and the other, our Canadian who was delayed by a Boy Scout meeting. I have been surprised at the number of amateurs that are involved with Boy Scouts.

The lesson started out with the instructor sending us words and we had to copy. The same format was used. Raise your hand when you have it and the last one pretty much gets called on. I did pretty well in this drill and we moved on to 3 word phrases. In the middle of this is when the other two students arrived on the call. There were one or two phrases that I struggled with during this time and of course I got the question, "How did you do Steve?" and I responded with a very confident, "As far as you know I did great!". That broke up the seriousness a little. About this time Dennis, the instructor, showed off the QSL card that he received that day from a CWop in Bahrain. One of the students paddled out the call sign and that led to a short stint of the instructor holding up DX QSL cards from his ragchews and contests and we would send the call sign.

Finally we moved on to our final task of the evening which involved us sending our call sign followed by a 3 word phrase. Sometimes the phrases make sense and sometimes they don't. When it was my turn I paddled out (one of these days I will try straight key and I will be able to say tapped or punched out) the following:

.-- ----. -... .-. ..  .-. . -..  -.. .. .-. -  .-. --- .- -..

You got it! W9BRI red dirt road

During this time I was happy that others commented on the mechanical noises during sending on one of the KX3's. I mentioned this in my last post and it also caused others in the room problems in copying his transmission. He is going to try something different next class to see if he can separate the paddles and the computer somewhat to pull the sound away from his speakers.

It still takes most of us 2 to 3 times to catch some of the phrases but we seem to be getting better. The important thing is that it is alot of fun and becoming a CWop will be a great accomplishment and an honor to follow in the footsteps of so many greats. I hope to get as good one day as W9ILF (Ivin) and KB9BVN (Brian), a couple of my elmers. Don't forget to check out their blogs listed over to the right and make sure to check out the Adventures with CW blog (W9ODX) as well.

--... ...--

Saturday, September 16, 2017

CW Academy - Lesson 2

Last night, Thursday September 14th, was lesson 2 of my Level 1 CW Academy class. Not sure what happened to our Northern Indiana student but he did not make it in last night. I put in the time since Monday on the Morse Trainer app and I was feeling good about how I would perform during lesson 2. That feeling was pretty short lived.

Everything started off bad when I arrived home only minutes prior to the start of class and I had to rush around getting things set up. When I fired up the computer to get Skype rolling Windows decided it needed to do some reconfiguration after an update which cost me a couple of precious minutes. That set me off right off that bat. The instructor thankfully called me a third time on Skype and I was able to participate. My frustration became apparent as soon as he started to send words and I started struggling right off the bat.

I have come to the realization that I have to be in a quiet environment to copy effectively right now. I hope that will change down the road but right now it is what it is. I started the class with the shack window open and even with headphones on I heard the kids playing outside and my dogs barking downstairs. My concentration blown I excused myself to shut the window so I could try to resurrect what was left of the session. I did do a little better going forward once I got some of the noise out of the way but I still had some issues.

One student is sending on a KX3 with the optional paddles. His computer microphone picks up every clack of his paddles and kills the rhythm for me. Another has a tone that it seems struggles to get out. I am not sure if I will do better in the upcoming classes by not being late to start with and lowering my frustration level but I sure hope so.

Anyway, some of you are stopping by because you are interested in taking the course and you are curious how it works. Notice I put all my personal stuff at the top so you would have to read through it to get to the part you wanted. I kid. I kid.

So, here it goes. Lesson 2 added letters and numbers to the original letters of T E A and N and, as an added bonus, we started numbers. The new letters were O I and S and the numbers 1 and 4. This session started out by the instructor sending us words and the four of us raising our hand when we had it. We moved on from that to copying three word phrases sent by the instructor and then he had each of us send a three word phrase and our fellow students had to copy. Beyond the problems I already stated that I had we all had some issues with copying due to improper spacing.

At the end of Lesson 1 we were told to practice sending our call signs. We were asked to send them tonight and our fellow students had to copy. This went fairly well except for some of the students who had not learned some of the letters that were in some of the calls. Again, sending suffered some due to our spacing. The instructor suggested we start practicing using the word Asian to work on our spacing because it is easy to run together and the word be unintelligible.

We returned to sending three word phrases and copying until time for the lesson to end. We will be back for Lesson 3 on Monday. Stay tuned!


Wednesday, September 13, 2017

CW Academy - Lesson 1

.- -. -..  ... ---  .. -  -... . --. .. -. ... .-.-.-

Last night, 9/11, was our initial meeting for Level 1 CW Academy class. All five students and the instructor showed up so that was the good sign. There was some concern earlier in the day about the possible need to evacuate for our instructor, K2SX Dennis, as he is a resident of Pawleys Island, SC. Fortunately for him, and us, at the time of class he was only experiencing 30 to 40 mph wind gusts and the authorities had not felt the need to evacuate his area. Because the class was held on Skype we were able to hear some of the gusts in the background as we completed our lesson.

I am trying to recall if I told you in another post that I was attending CW Academy and where my fellow students hailed from so pardon me if I have. My class consists of Gerald from Canada, Craig and Tim from opposite ends of North Carolina, Joel from northern Indiana, and myself. We started out with a new round of introductions as Gerald had not been on our earlier meet and greet call to test out Skype last month. After introductions Dennis asked us to try and flip the camera around and show what our gear was that we would be using to participate in the course.

There were two or three Elecraft KX3's, which of course made me drool, and each of those students were using the KXPD3 paddles that are on option with that rig. There was also an Icom IC-706 paired with Bencher BY-2 paddles, a Yaesu FT-857D (running off a deep marine cycle battery), and my FT-991A with Bencher BY-1 paddles. You do not need anything nearly as elaborate as any of these rigs to participate in the class. If you have a key, keyer, computer for Skype, and something that will put out a sidetone then you are set.

The course follows the Morse Trainer on Morse Trainer is a program that was developed specifically for the CW Academy courses. You can find it here. The typical course involves meeting twice per week covering two lessons during that time. The meeting nights are determined by the instructor after polling the students to find the two nights during the week that work for everyone. My class is on Mondays and Thursdays and runs approximately one hour, beginning at 1930 EDT or 2330 UTC.

The first class centered on the letters T E A and N. Dennis started by sending the letters in random order and asked us to raise our hands when we were able to copy. He likes to call on the last person to raise their hand or the last person who is unable to copy. After a few minutes of this he asked us to send the four letters in random order as well and our fellow students had to copy. We moved on to sending short snippets of two to three words using the letters for the lesson. This pretty much ended the session.

I think the biggest struggle for many of us was copying some of the sending of the others. Spacing seemed to be the most prominent problem we were having during sending which caused us problems copying at different points throughout the lesson.

I hope to write a little review of every session as long as it does not interfere with my studying for the next lesson. If all goes well I will see you in a few days.

--... ...--

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The 400 Came Home!! The 400 Came Home!!!

Just jumping in for a quick note to say that the FTM-400XDR came back last week. The radio is working great and the first thing that I noticed was how much operating on 2m on my work commute had become a part of my life and how much I truly missed it while the radio was at Yaesu.

Back on August 9th I wrote about the radio leaving for the emergency room, aka Yaesu repair facility. You can find that post here. Due to some work obligations I did not actually get the radio on UPS until the 14th. They let me know 4 days later that they had received it and would be evaluating it for repair. What seemed like forever passed before another email arrived explaining that they replaced the internal speaker and that parts and labot were under warranty so no charges would be added. The radio was shipping the next day and it actually arrived in back in town on 9/6. So, if you take away the eight days of transit you are left with 15 days of actual repair process. I would say that is not too bad.

So, if you have a radio in need of repair get it sent in. Just try to have a backup in place so you can avoid withdrawals like I did.


Thursday, August 31, 2017

QRP Dummy Load

There are quite a few choices one can make for a QRP dummy load kit. There are offerings from QRP Labs, QRP Guys, Oak Hills Research, etc. Sure you can buy a low power dummy load ready to go for $30 or so but there were two factors that fueled my decision. One, I really like putting things together. I find it relaxing to sit at my bench listening to the radio and soldering things up. I never did this type of stuff in the past so it is pretty exciting for me when you are done and the moment of truth comes and you power it up or run the test and things are as they should be. The second factor that made me decide to purchase a kit was the cost. $30 plus shipping or $14 to my door. Well, that is not a decision that takes long for me. You see, I am a self proclaimed cheapskate. Well, I guess not so self proclaimed as my wife and kids would probably tell you the same thing about me.

So, I looked all over the internet and settled on a 10 watt dummy load kit from Oak Hills Research (OHR). This particular dummy load is actually a joint venture between OHR and the Colorado QRP Club (CQC). It consists of two 5w 100ᘯ metal oxide resistors, an SO-239 connector, and two adapters. You get both a UHF to UHF adapter and a UHF to BNC adapter. This is the perfect size to throw in a backpack or go kit for when you find that perfect operating position. The best part? It takes longer for the soldering iron to heat up than it does to make it. After I got my soldering done I performed the obligatory check and it read a perfectly acceptable 50.1Ω.

There were many other kits available that I really liked the look of but some, with a piece of PCB attached, seemed a little less "combat ready" than this all metal offering. The other thing I found is that the customer service is second to none from OHR. Marshall, N1FN, was excellent at communicating with me throughout the order and shipping process and we had a nice conversation about some of the other products that are offered. Check out what they have to offer by going to Milestone Technologies, which seems to be the mothership for OHR, Morse Express, and Ameco. Make sure you tell Marshall that Steve McQueen, W9BRI, sent you. After all, who could forget a name like that?

Until next time.....