Friday, December 30, 2011

Last Commute of 2011

The sun came out today so instead of driving my car I rode the Titanium General Purpose Bike to take care of some errands.  The weather has been unseasonably warm so I took advantage and got in a last commute for 2011.  The streets were still wet from rains earlier in the morning but my fenders did their job keeping me dry.  I can't believe it's been six years since I built up the Ti GP Bike.  In those six years my bike has served me well as an urban commuter.  The titanium mountain bike frame provides a responsive yet buttery smooth ride that makes every trip a joy.  As an added bonus no rust or paint to chip when locking up.  The only thing I've done is put air in the tires and lube the chain once in a while.  I think I'll make a new years resolution to do more commuting on this great bike.

Happy New Years and Ride Safe in 2012!

Monday, December 26, 2011

Vibroplex Vibrocube #401321

I first learned of the new Vibroplex iambic paddle from several ham radio blogs I read.  A couple attributes of the new key got my attention and it didn't take me long to decide to add this instrument to the lineup at amateur radio station W8MDE.

If this is the first time you have seen this key please take a moment to go to the Vibroplex website and see the Vibrocube in it's stock configuration for yourself.  Red knobs and finger pieces have been a stock color on certain keys for probably longer than I've been around.  While not a fan of the red finger pieces it's not the color of the new Vibrocube paddles that triggered the double take but the gigantic size.  I tried the red finger pieces and they actuate the levers fine but I just couldn't get over the big red clown shoe feeling.  

As Scott Robbins, W4PA explains on his website the Vibrocube's design clearly addresses the requirements of the large handed radio telegraphy operator.  The big finger pieces accommodate a wide range of hand positions and the heavy base provides a rock solid foundation ready for the roughest fist.

What caught my attention was the height of the levers.  In my short three years as a cw ham I've noticed a common shortcoming on all of my Morse Code paddles.  They all seem too short to me. (Pun!)  When I received my package from the mailman Saturday morning I pulled the finger pieces from my Vibroplex Iambic Standard and installed them on the new key.  To demonstrate my hand position while using the Vibrocube place your fist down on the desk as if you were firing a pistol.  I use my thumb and index finger to operate the dual levers of the key but leave my hand in the shooting bench stance.  This just seems more natural and comfortable to me compared to my wrist down flat on the table which must be a more common practice based on the short stature of today's CW paddles.

With the black oval finger pieces from my Iambic Standard I think the Vibrocube looks great and sends code just as well.  I tend to like a key whose levers have more mass and greater contact spacing to provide some tactile response to my inputs.  I attribute this to many hours spent slapping the lever of my bug key while mastering that amazing contraption.  The contact spacing is set using a qsl card to set the gap. I can feel the movement and hear a distinct clink as the switch closes. 

I do tend to occasionally get excited and push a little too hard on the lever causing my key to skid one way or the other during a live contact on the air.  It doesn't happen often or affect my sending but it is annoying.  The weight of the Vibrocube definitely solves that problem.

Though not a true cube the perimeter of the Vibrocube base is a square 3-1/2 inches on a side and 1-1/2 inches deep.  This chunk of solid steel provides nearly 6 pounds of mass.  Needless to say the key stays put.

Another startling feature of the Vibrocube is the black wrinkle powder coating on the yoke and levers.  I like this departure from the usual flashy chrome pieces.  The wrinkle coat photographs like glossy wet paint due to the bright studio lights but to the eye it appears matte black and looks great on the desk.

For the final bit of customization I swapped out the standard black feet for soft white rubber bumpers that I think add a touch of class. Like white patent leather shoes with a black tuxedo or white wall tires on an old classic car.

The Vibrocube nameplate is smaller than the standard Knoxville, TN nameplate and this latest revision sports a bold red outline stripe that greatly improves the look of the current screen printed plate.

Of course the best thing about a new key is putting it on the air.  I've really enjoyed the Vibrocube and logged some nice contacts with it over the holiday weekend:

12/24/11  14.061 MHz  (25 watts)  AA1TH/qrp  Boston, MA
12/24/11  14.048 MHz  (100 watts)  W0WM  Sisseton, SD
12/24/11  14.055 MHz  (100 watts)  KJ6POQ  San Lorenzo, CA
12/25/11  14.040 MHz  (50 watts)  KX5P  Plano, TX
12/26/11  14.041 MHz  (50 watts)  N4ZMP  Pensacola, FL

Power shown is my transmit power out.  Rig is an Icom 718 HF transceiver. Antenna is an End Fed Half Wave wire (34 feet long) up 38 feet above ground.  The Vibrocube is connected to a Logikey K5 electronic keyer which forms perfect dots and dashes. My putting them together in perfect order is another story entirely. 

Monday, December 12, 2011

News from A.R.S. W8MDE

Freezing temperatures have finally driven me indoors.  Well, at least until there is enough snow on the ground to get out the skis.  Although I enjoy amateur radio all year round the winter time is the ideal season for the radio hobby.  The days in the northern hemisphere are shorter which provides a greater window for nighttime propagation on the lower HF bands.  Another benefit of winter is the absence of electrical storms.  At 7 MHz and below atmospheric lightning makes it's presence known on our receivers in the form of obnoxious static crashes.  Obviously I don't operate with thunderstorms in the immediate area but I can hear them at distances hundreds of miles away.  A static crash from a lightning discharge can completely cover even a strong signal for a few seconds at a time.  While not the end of the world it can be an annoying specifically when trying to copy weaker signals.  During the dark winter months the noise floor on the bands is extra quiet and that makes operation easier whatever the game is. 

Lately I've found myself at my radio desk with renewed vigor enjoying the quiet atmospheric conditions and enhanced propagation thanks to increasing solar activity as our sun draws ever nearer to the height of the latest solar cycle.  Because greater sunspot numbers means increased solar radiation reaching Earth's atmosphere the upper HF bands (17, 15, 12, and 10 meters) have now come alive or "opened" allowing radio wave propagation.  A curious side effect of this elevated solar wind acting on the ionosphere allows a bending of radio waves back to Earth instead of being lost out into space.    This is good news in that whole swaths of radio spectrum are now available for reliable long range communications.  I've noticed that the sun's effects are not just limited to the upper end of the HF spectrum.  Signals on the bands that I frequent namely 80, 40 and 20 meters seem louder than ever.  While these lower bands don't "close" or become completely unusable during sunspot minimums they certainly benefit from a hefty shot of solar activity like we are experiencing now. 

Recently I spent some time on 10 meters (28 MHz) doing a bit of beacon hunting.  Amateur propagation beacons are usually small 5 watt transmitters fed into simple vertical antennas.  These installations broadcast a short looped transmission in CW or Morse Code that identifies the call sign and location of the beacon.  In short order I had logged these amateur beacons:

WI6J/B   Bakersfield, California
N7MA   Rose Lake, Idaho
K6FRC/B   Valley Springs, California 
WA7LNW/B   Hurricane Mesa Supersonic Research and Test Facility, 8 miles west of Zion National Park, Utah       

Often just listening can be fun in amateur radio!

Activity also picks up during holidays and this year is no exception.  On Thanksgiving night I powered up the station to test out my neglected Morse Code skills.  My first CW contact in nearly two months took place on 40 meters with KD5ZLB who was operating portable from a cabin at Lake Hugo State Park in southern Oklahoma.

Next in the log was N2ESE, My friend Gary from New Jersey.  Gary and I have enjoyed numerous conversations using Morse Code over the airwaves since I became licensed in 2008.  Forging these long-distance friendships via ham radio is in my opinion one of the greatest aspects of the hobby.

I really could not tell any difference in my ability to send or receive the code after a month or more of non-use.  I've heard it said that the code is much like riding a bike.  One might become rusty after many years away but the ability is never totally lost.

I also snagged another special event for my collection.  Using the digital mode PSK-31 I connected with VE3FRST, a special event station commemorating the UN International Year of Forests.  VE3FRST is operated by Michael Bell, VE3NOO of Ontario, Canada.  The first time I met Michael on the air was January 27, 2009 when he was operating another special event the "International Year of Astronomy".  That contact was only my 23rd ham radio exchange over the air and was my first time working a special event station.


I missed the October and November editions of the Straight Key Century Club's monthly operating event so I made it a point to be ready this past Saturday for the sprint Kickoff.  I was in and out of the shack during the weekend working on other projects but did manage to make 44 contacts in 23 different states.  Two of the contacts were French club members from across the Atlantic.  F6HKA and a new member I worked for the first time:  F5JWH.

My son has been learning geography in Social Studies class so I borrowed one of his blank outline maps of the United States to color in the various states as I established contact during the sprint.  The map shows nearly universal coverage of my station to most of the continental U.S. but of particular interest is that I worked all three west coast states and Idaho, Nevada and Arizona.  My first couple of years as a radio amateur during the sunspot minimum I rarely heard these states let alone work all of them in the span of a few hours.

Nothing like a little casual contesting to verify the effectiveness of the wireless station.

Last but not least is an interesting bit of ham radio trivia I just learned.  For the first time in history of the United States the ranks of amateur radio license holders has exceeded 700,000.  In almost four years I have contacted around 1,000 of them mostly using Morse Code. 
That's a lot of beeps.


Sunday, December 4, 2011

1952 Patent D-105529 Hobbleskirt

On yesterday's ride I took a few breaks to do a little insulator scouting.  I parked the HP Velo at the side of trail and hopped a small creek to inspect some ground  under an old telegraph pole.  This time of year all the leaves have fallen and strong winds blow the ground clear in places.  At the base of a tree I saw the familiar glint of green glass and I thought ah-ha! an insulator.  As I walked up I noticed the thing wasn't an insulator but a bottle.  What I could see was just an inch or two of the thick green glass base of a narrow bottle stuck into the soft mud .

When I saw the embossed Script on the bottle with lack of printing inks or other decoration of modern times I realized I was holding a piece of real of 20th century American history.  Because of my interest in antique glass insulators I am aware of the bottle collecting hobby.  Once again an amateur archaeology project fell right into my lap.  In the creek I rinsed loose the sediment from inside the bottle and tucked it safe into a side pocket of my seat back bag.

 After some quick and easy research online I learned these facts:

Patent D-105529 Hobbleskirt Coke Bottle

Produced 1938-1951

Front emboss:
BOTTLE PAT, D-105529

Rear emboss:


Produced 1951-1958

Front emboss:

Rear emboss:


Produced 1958-1965

Front emboss:

Rear emboss:

Clearly visible embossing on the lower front reads:


The first two digits represent the year the bottle was made 1952.  It almost seems as though Coca-Cola knew their bottles might one day become collectible items so the designers made it easy for production runs to be easily identified and authenticated.

Another cool feature I learned about the "Hobbleskirt Bottle" is that the city that the bottle was from is embossed on the bottom.  I found this bottle just outside the city limits of Mansfield, Ohio.  Today lucky for the collector market this unique hierarchy of bottle production versus population density favors the small town distributors whose demand required smaller quantities of bottles.  This means fewer surviving examples with small town embossed names compared to the well known big cities of America.  Scarcity once helped by demand drives the value up fueling a healthy collector market.

During my photo shoot I went all out using the tripod and artificial lighting and also taking the opportunity to experiment with the white balance settings of my camera.  While reviewing my shots I noticed that the second shot, the rear emboss detail the whole bottle looked crooked.  To be sure I went back and set up again but this time I adjusted the white balance.  The following images have a purple cast I don't like but more importantly after a careful alignment of camera and subject the second series of pictures shows the bottle is a true leaner. All I did was to rotate the bottle 180 degrees.       

I did find some insulators too. 

Nice dome glass on far right beehive.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Recumbent Ride

The nice days keep coming my way so I ride.  Earlier in the week the first snow fell in the area but today temperatures read between 50 - 55 degrees on the digital thermometer throughout my ride.  Perfect weather I think and a few other diehards so the trail was mostly vacant just the way I like it. 

Richand County B & O Trail

Bike:  HP Velotechnick
Ride Time:  2:15:54
Distance:  29.68 miles
Average Speed:  13.1 mph
Max Speed:  21.9 mph
Bike Odometer:  2070 miles

Friday, December 2, 2011

Picture of the Day -- Bulldog Mack

A camera lens is both the brush and the canvas.
I spotted this little piece of Americana by chance one day last month.  An Icon from the trucking industry "Bulldog Mack" was a nickname given to early Mack cargo trucks supplied to the British during World War 1.  Dutifully hauling troops and supplies to the front lines the British soldiers were impressed with the truck's reliability and brute toughness. Even the look of the truck was a characteristic that reminded them of their own national mascot the English Bulldog.  Later in the 1920's the bulldog became the official corporate logo of Mack Trucks.

I found the little guy laying on his side forlorn looking and forgotten.  His back legs had broken off from the base were he had once stood watch atop the grill of some big rig.  I set him back up straight and proud, smiled and turned to walk away before I remembered my camera in my pocket.  Serendipity often causes opportunity for the photographer and I've learned to always watch for interesting points of view.

I like how the elements of the background -weathered wood, iron and red barn siding all come together punctuating the diminutive yet tough looking form of Bulldog Mack.  The November sun was low in the sky providing great contrast to bring out the features of the pugnacious canine face.