Spring equinox

Saturday was the vernal equinox, but even if it wasn't, more and more daylight is creeping into the evenings. Next week the clocks will change and we will be in UTC+1 with a further bonus hour. Now all we need is for the beer gardens to open, and according to onewayroadtobeer.com that'll be in a three weeks.

Instead of boozing in a spring beer garden, I've been involved in a mini three-day crunch mode at work. But outside of this, it's been hobby overload. Get a cup of tea, readers: this blog entry is three times as long as usual.

Board games

On Monday and again on Sunday, I played Targi on Board Game Arena with Chris B while chatting on our Mumble server. It took a little while to learn how to play but once we got going, it turned out to give the session a nice balance between thinking a bit about strategy and having a nice social chat. And this is a strategy game that works well with only two people.

We've also been playing a game of 7×7 go each day at online-go.com while we do our coding and whatever else in another window. It's surprisingly playable and challenging while not requiring too much time. At least at my beginner level, each game has a couple of lessons if you take five minutes to reflect on it afterwards at the end of each day.

Enjoying nature

Dan and I have been getting into trip cameras. Last week we put a camera up on one of the trees looking into the wood but it didn't pick up much more than me wandering around. We moved the first camera to another tree and put up its sensitivity. We had got a second camera over the weekend and had a think about where to put it on Monday.

Dan noticed some deer tracks along the path. They pointed towards a stream and through to a large hole in the hedge where some animals had clearly been passing through. I got into the stream and put the camera on a tree looking out along it. After stopping to dig out a blue rubble bag that had been in the stream for several years, we headed back home, hoping for some good shots.

On Saturday and Sunday we visited the woods to take the images and video from the camera and to see if we could find any more animal tracks and traces. They were abundant, and we moved one of the cameras to point at a small mossy area a little way along the stream. A few minutes later we what looked like a well-worn animal travel route, and we bought a third camera to cover it. Over time we'll hopefully find the best trails and runs for detecting and capturing wildlife.

Getting home and looking at the SD cards, we were pretty happy with what we'd caught on camera. Have a look at all of the following:

Beekeeping

I've joined the Melksham Beekeepers with the intention to link up with the local beekeeping scene, as well as be in with a chance of a rescued swarm when the season is upon us. Dad sent my bee suit in the post so we're all ready once the phone rings, not that it'll be the season for that for a couple of months yet.

Radiofurtling

I've been studying recently for my full amateur radio licence, but I haven't done much practical amateur radio stuff, just studying the book. I thought I'd try to address this a bit this week.

I've emailed and phoned the local antenna installer that all the radio people around here seem to like but received no reply, so I took a different approach. I bought a 2m antenna tripod. There is a skylight in my house which roughly faces Bath and Bristol, and if I crack it open and completely invert the skylight, I can put the tripod on top of a large cupboard in such a way that my 1m vertical 'white stick' antenna stands well clear of the skylight. It also has the advantage that I can swap the vertical for a Yagi antenna or whatever else I happen to be playing with that week.

The difference it made to my reception was considerable. Attempting a direct FM contact to 2E0KZP in Bristol gave little more than a smudge on his waterfall display, presumably due to the two 180m hills between us (we'll try SSB next week). However, tuning around the dial showed that I could listen to quite a lot of stuff. I heard Gary M0OTL and Paul G7SQS chatting via simplex on the Chippenham club G3VRE net, about 20km away, which they later confirmed. Repeaters were pretty accessible too. GB3BS and GB3UB was nice and clear. I could comfortably get to further-flung repeaters like GB3WR or GB3JB, receiving with not much interference. I think that I even heard GB3AA. Back home, GB3WE is the local repeater and with the help of Welsh stations it tends to get busy. Around here the 2m repeaters are pretty quiet, so there may well be more I could get into but haven't tried yet. Anyway, success.

The other thing I did this week is to get the required parts for a half-wave dipole antenna. These antennas allow you to operate on longer wavelengths, which many will know as shortwave. Amateur radio on these frequencies is a whole different beast, not least because those radio waves bounce off the ionosphere and are reflected back to Earth. I have a lot of antenna wire left over from the last dipole antenna and a lot of space here on the farm. Originally, the plan was to to make an antenna for use on the 40m band, a pretty popular band with good long-distance possibilities no matter what the sunspot cycle happens to be. Right now, according to the propagation reports at HamQSL, the most open bands are the really longwave ones like these, especially at night, but the 20m band and the 30m band are 'fair'. Ultimately i'd like to try out the LF and MF bands, but I'll need a bit more antenna wire for that! My radio is a second-hand Icom IC-718, so no fancy waterfall display or anything, but I can hook it up to my computer via a soundcard and play around with digital modes.

The last time I played with the HF (High Frequency, 3-30MHz) bands regularly was probably in the summer of 2019. Back then I started off with a couple of analogue modes. I was getting some WEFAX weather reports from Deutscher Wetterdienst (the German Met Office) and transmitting slow-scan television using MultiScan 3B, both on the 40m band. Both of these were sort of fun, but WSTJ-X (and its fork JTDX) opened up the possibility of digital modes, alongside Fldigi and FSQCall. Some of these modes are weak signal modes, specifically designed to cope with lots of noise, not much power, poor antennas, or issues with propagation. They sometimes do this by dropping the bit rate very low among other tricks. WSPR, a beacon protocol, transmits at well under 0.5bps, but can be read at a signal-to-noise ratio of -28dB. Then and now, the FT8 communication protocol (at just below 6bps) was and is very popular. It is decodable at a signal-to-noise ratio of about -20dB, meaning roughly that the power of the background noise is one hundred times more power than the power of the useful signal.

Even though this means FT8 allows you to play around with radio when the solar cycle is at a minimum and propagation is poor, it transmits only the bare minimum of information considered for a contact. An example is the following message:

2E0KZP 2E0RLZ IO81

In plain English this means: "To Kipz, this is Simon here, I am sending this message from the area containing Cardiff and Bristol defined by the Maidenhead Locator square IO81". It achieves all this in 50 bits by using WSPR callsign compression, and cuts through noise well, but unless you care about collecting contacts you're going to find it pretty dry as a conversational style. FT8Call came along and was renamed JS8Call. It turned FT8 into a chat mode, where operators can chat on their keyboards to each other, a bit like on IRC. You can send out messsages directly or relay them via other operators. It inherits the same resilience to noise and other poor propagation conditions, if you don't mind waiting the required time for the message to make it out there.

Anyway, Dan was over on Saturday, and after having a picnic from the local farm shop, and after teaching me how to set up the heathens.club VPN with WireGuard, I somehow decided it was radiofurtling time. Dan patiently joined in and after not long we were unravelling a huge length of Flexweave antenna wire. After a chat with the neighbours we found a tree in their garden far enough away to tie it to, and hooked it up to my radio. We didn't measure it like you are supposed to; we just hooked it up. It was between 35m and 40m, we think, so much longer than I originally intended, and roughly suited to the 80m band. A tape measure has been ordered.

Knots (a tangent)

I'd also realised that my understanding of knots had faded a little since I was a cub. I clumsily knotted the paracord to the tree in any way that would hold. This big mess, of course, led to lots of loss on tension in the heavy antenna. Dan cleverly suggested using another tree as a pulley, which worked pretty well. However, I now know about the midshipman's hitch, an adjustable hitch knot which loops around a tree. After you have your tension in the rope, you can slide the hitch along the line without retying the knot. There's also the adjustable grip hitch and the tautline hitch, but the midshipman's hitch has the advantage that, while being tied, it forms an awning hitch, which begins to take the load temporarily. Fellow members of CDARC favour the lorryman's hitch, the rolling hitch or the sheep shank. For knot fans, a more recent innovation is the Farrimond friction hitch, invented in 2008 by Bristolian Barry Farrimond, which provides a quick-release mechanism. Maybe any of these knots are good enough; the astronauts on STS-82, the twenty-second NASA space shuttle Discovery flight, thought that the tautline hitch was good enough for them.

Some use paracord or rope along the whole length of the antenna to support it, not just from the isolator. Richard G4AWP uses fishing line in antennas. He constructs a slack line and uses a fishing line to take up the slack. In a storm, if the tree supporting it sways and pulls the line too much, the fishing line will break. What remains is a slack antenna, intact and still usable, even if a bit slack. I thought this was a clever trick.

Any of these approaches would be an improvement on my knotwork on Saturday, really. I've also got some little pulleys to build on Dan's suggestion and get even more tension.

Back to the radio

With the radio sitting outside on an upturned box and us sitting on the gravel in the driveway, Dan began to scan the dial. After a few minutes he had found a voice call on the 40m band from a station doing some HF contesting in Dimitrovgrad in Bulgaria. He found shortwave programmes from the Vatican and Iran. We tried out FT8 and, although we didn't get around to doing any actual transmission, after running WSJT-X, in the first couple of slots we saw stations transmitting from Odessa in Ukraine (square KN56) and Medan in Indonesia (square NJ93). Overall the 40m FT8 channel sounded absolutely packed, with warbles on top of warbles on top of warbles. We found the same when we tried WSPR. Our original plan to transmit an image over slow-scan television was foiled because of the volume of traffic. This antenna picked up so much more than I ever got messing about with radio back home in Somerset.

So it's safe to say the antenna worked well. Going over to the 30m band, the FT8 was very clear. I also tried JS8Call, but it was getting both dark and cold, and in the few minutes I tried listening on 7.078MHz and 10.130MHz I couldn't hear much in the way of readable traffic. I'll try again soon.

Dan commented later that we'd had a go at real amateur radio. In spite of (or maybe because of) the weird warbles and buzzes, various modes and modulations, and chaotic traffic on the shortwave bands, I'd tend to agree. It was fun to hook up a monster antenna to some trees capable of receiving signals over 10,000km away, and we've only really scratched the surface of what we can do below 30MHz.

Cookery

I had another go at making Default Stew, considering feedback given a few weeks ago. This time I added six Lincolnshire sausages but added the mushrooms and beans much later in the cooking. It's better, and less on the bitter side, but the next iteration will feature no cumin, no cinnamon, no dark chocolate, and use much more smoked paprika. Maybe even some caraway seeds. Adding soy sauce to the stew really helped the flavour, so maybe it needs a sprinkle of salt. Or, y'know, soy sauce. Anyway, these things take time to get right.

Conclusion

Being outside and doing things you enjoy is good for you.