Morse Code Journey

I initially set out to learn Morse code because it was required to upgrade to General. After returning to the States from overseas in early 2005, I knew I wanted to upgrade my license and start working HF. To upgrade I needed to pass the 5 wpm Element 1 Morse code exam. I really did not have a great interest in learning Morse code: digital modes and SSB seemed like enough. So I went to Code Quick and purchased their program of learning Morse. Code Quick uses sound-a-likes to associate Morse code letters with a short word combination and graphic image. Example: for the letter U, the Morse is dit-di-dah. Code Quick’s sound-a-like was “kiss-a-ewe.” The rhythm of the syllable of the sound-a-like matches the rhythm of the Morse. Great idea, right? I can credit Code Quick for getting me to where I needed to be to pass Element 1. I was now on HF and making contacts. Life was good.

After a few months of SSB and PSK-31 contacts (do you remember PSK-31? It was all the rage back in the aughts). Adjacent to the PSK-31 I would heard the chirping of Morse code. I bought a Bencher paddle and a MFJ paddle with a built in keyer. Also picked up a Logikit CMOS 4 Morse Code Keyer.

Frustrated with my abilities to engage in any really QSOs, I took advantage of my local clubs Morse code class. The gentlemen who were running it said we needed to start with straight keys, not paddles. After we had learned the code, built up speed, we could use a paddle. They did not explain why. I stuck with the paddle. I got one of the MFJ-418 Pocket Morse Code tutor. I never got into a habit of regular practice. I was able to complete a QSO now and again, but it was the other side doing the heavy lifting. I could send pretty well with a paddle. I relied on Fldigi to help me understand what the other station was sending. In short, I was making very little progress.

Time was rolling by. I stuck with the paddle. When I was in Korea I participated in my first CW contest. I used the Logikit CMOS keyer along with a paddle. It really was a push-button affair, not relying on any real skill.

In the fall of 2015 I purchased Dr. Jessica Parks’ Skilman Introduction to Morse Code. Audio CD based, Skilman incorporates copying and sending. She also is explicit about practice occurring where you actually intend to use the code. Replicate the conditions in which you plan to use the skill you are practicing – that makes sense. I also started using another Morse course by K7QO. He emphasized using a notebook for practice sessions.

At this point I had completed by certification as an elementary school teacher, well versed in various theories supporting educational practice. Some specific ideas from my training stood out. One was automaticity: the quality or fact of being performed involuntarily or unconsciously, as a reflex, innate process, or ingrained habit. This can be most recognized in learning the multiplication/division tables. I had seen students be much more success with learning long division when they had memorized the multiplication/division tables to the point where their recall was automatic…. no thought involved, just immediate recall. Circling back to Code Quick – it prevents any ability to immediately recall Morse code characters as the sound-a-likes introduce a three step process: (a) hear the code, (b) associate with sound-a-like, (c) and then write the Morse character. Code Quick prevents automaticity.

The other theory is kinesthetic learning: combing physical movement with cognitive processing. And then it clicked… the straight key. Unlike a paddle, the straight key requires muscle memory to form each and every Morse code character. The formation of each character then becomes a seamless process between muscle and brain.

I combined these two theories of automaticity and kinesthetic learning along with Skilman and K7QOs programs. I maintained a practice notebook and always conducted my practice in front of my rig, using the rigs oscillator – replicating the conditions I would use when actually operating. Skilman combined copying code along with sending, the perfect combination of automaticity and kinesthetic learning.

I was frustrated when trying to find QSOs and constantly bumping into the SKCC crowd. While having a SKCC number, I was using a paddle. If I switched to a straight key, not only would I be working the kinesthetic portion of the Morse connection, I would have the opportunity to make more contacts. More contacts = more real world practice. Amazingly enough, I started making real progress. At no time could I ever commit anything beyond thirty minutes a day to practice. Eventually I got to the point with Skilman that I could copy and send around 7 wpm without issue. I was able to get on air and make QSOs with those willing to slow down a bit.

I turned to Gordon West WB6NOA’s 5-16 wpm Morse code speed builder course. About half way through at around 10 wpm, I became tripped up by numbers and punctuation. Morse Code Ninja was the next step. I needed to bump up my wpm. Morse Code Ninja uses Farnsworth: learning the character sounds at a moderately fast speed by increasing the gaps between the characters and words to give more recognition time. Going through at 20 wpm with 10 wpm Farnsworth allowed me to work on both speed and numbers/punctuation. Then I moved to 25 wpm with 10 wpm Farnsworth spacing.

I could now get on air and can hand copy about 12-15wpm, depending on if they added any additional spacing between letters. Back to WB6NOA, I could still make forward progress. At last I was no longer internally throwing in the Quick Code extra steps of processing sound-a-likes. The increased speed of Morse Code Ninja got me to stop counting dots for numbers, learning the sound instead – not thoughts in between, just sound to hand writing down the character. I still have a long ways to go. My goal is to be comfortable at copying and sending at 20 wpm without any additional spacing and to begin to copy words instead of characters. At this point, my straight key sending is trailing behind my copying speed. I am ok with that. The straight key speed will come. I do not have plans to switch back to paddle any time soon and I want to make sure my straight key sending is as near perfect as possible. Accuracy transcends speed.

Here are my lessons learned for learning Morse code:

  • Use a straight key (see automaticity and kinesthetic learning)
  • Combine the initial learning of the code with copying and sending (see Skilman)
  • Get on the air as much as possible
  • Use a mix of resources to consistently push yourself outside of your comfort zone
  • Practice should involve sending as well as copying code
  • Conduct your practice sessions where you are going to actually use the code
  • Use a notebook for all your practice and on air copying

Many people (CWOps?) would disagree with the method and the recommendations I provide above. I do not disagree with those who want to only head copy code and use a paddle. I think that road works well for those who are really interested in contesting. I’m not interested in contesting. Those who head copy only lack the ability to use Morse for anything beyond causal QSOs.

The journey continues.

POTA PIT

The exploration of Kansas City’s Fusion continues.

Tonight at 8pm eastern John, AB0O, came up on the Kansas City Wide room (28054) announcing a net called POTA PIT. A pretty interesting net. There were several check-ins. Discussion ranged from equipment, recent operations, as well possible plans for Field Day activations.

POTA is indeed a phenomenon. Jumping on the coattails of the National Park Service’s 100 year anniversary, POTA developed beyond just activating National Parks to activating a whole host of parks.

While I do not think we need necessarily need a formalized structure to inspire ham communications between portable sites and others… I can’t see how it hurts. POTA CW operations make for good practice although their exchanges tend to be wam-bam-thank-you. Seems like it would interesting to at least hear about the park they were at. I always enjoyed activating lighthouses when I was back in Virginia. The Amateur Radio Lighthouse Society (ARLHS) didn’t advocate for rapid exchanges but supported more casual QSOs.

I’ve been practicing using my mobile setup to make CW contacts using my leg key (J-45). These contacts have been while parked and I think that’s the way they’ll stay. The J-45 leg key is a tricky beast, but like anything, it will come along with practice.

You don’t need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows

Kansas City is a Yaesu Fusion town. No two ways about it. And can we stop for a second and recognize how internet-based radio has changed over the past ten to fifteen years (twenty)? Seems like yesterday when IRLP was all the rage. Then the upstart Echolink came in, which never really felt like radio because of being able to use a computer to talk. Kenwood’s TM-D710A rig went whole hog with their integration of Echolink into that radio. IRLP felt more real because you used radios – plus it was based in a linux variant. Then the rise of D-Star and Yaesu’s Fusion. Raspberry Pi-s and Allstar nodes. Cats sleeping with dogs. Things got complicated.

Way back when, I was stationed in Korea and as an additional way to get on the air I got an Icom IC-92AD along with a DVAP that allowed me to use D-Stars. The HT was of a nice solid construction, metal not plastic… very rugged. D-Stars had poor quality audio, until you got used to it… and compared to IRLP or Echolink.

I still have an EchoIRLP node. Seems like a bit of an antique these days. A gentlemen from Long Island connected to the node a while back, explaining that the IRLP node on their repeater system had been down for a couple of years and they had just repaired it. He was curious where all the IRLP traffic was? That is a good question. There is still activity with the East Coast Reflector. Not sure how those folks on the west coast WIN System are doing.

Another interesting phenomenon is the geographical segmentation of D-Star and Yaesu’s Fusion. I will be honest in admitting I have a hard time defining the difference between Fusion, Wires-X, YSF, and C4FM. But that’s another discussion. Interestingly enough, some towns are D-Star and some are Fusion. I am not sure if that is because either Yaesu or Icom donated the components to different repeater owners or if there is another explanation.

Kansas City is a Fusion town. I noticed it first with a local UHF repeater. I am not a big net guy, but I enjoy, at times, monitoring the repeaters and reading the mail. One day when I went to check the local UHF repeater, it was just digital hash. Lo and behold, they’d gone Fusion. Hmm. A little more investigating showed that many more repeaters around the greater Kansas City metropolitan area had also gone Fusion.

It was time to ditch the Icom HT. A recent Kansas City hamfest gave me the opportunity where I was able to find a home for my lightly used IC-92AD (with DVAP, extra batteries, and a drop-in charging cradle). And now I am the proud owner of a Yaesu FT5D… still trying to figure out the ends and outs. Similar to the DVAP, I got a pi-star “hotspot” that allows me some flexibility of connecting to both repeaters as well as… other “linked” nodes. Sometimes they are called “rooms” and sometimes they are called other names. Still figuring it out. I have a Wires-X button that seems to offer some additional functionality. Need to learn more about that.

Having the new HT has motivated me to check into that local net on a slightly more regular basis. We’ll see what becomes of Yaesu’s Fusion…. will it enjoy a similar rise and fall like IRLP or will it continue to grow?

News from the shack

Keeping the shack in some semblance of order has always been a challenge for me. But the battle continues. Maybe a year ago or more I went through my shelves and transferred the vast majority of the contents that had been stored in a collection of totes and cardboard boxes to a fairly standardized set of see-through storage totes. During the holidays I went through these totes again to actually sort through the items to (1) see what I actually have and (2) attempt to organize and group items in some sort of systematized fashion. And now I am just about there.

Here is a list of small projects I have been working on or hope to soon:

(1) I have an EchoIRLP node that is connected to my shack’s TM-D710A. Previously when someone connects to my node, my only indication is to hear the fan start on the TM-D710A. I have an old, unused and gathering dust, Uniden Bearcat BC245XLT scanner that would be perfect to monitor my nodes frequency from inside the shack. The battery pack that supported the BC245XLT had long expired. Now that all my Anderson Powerpole items are organized I was able to find the correct 12v cable with fitting connector to power up the scanner sitting on the shelf. Now if someone connects and I am in the shack, I will certainly hear them.

(2) There is a lot of excess gear in the shack. Stacks of stuff I really do not need and am not going to use. Now it is time to part with it and send it to a good home. And now I can figure out what I have and what I can sell.

(3) Clean up my J-38. I have checked out the key, it adjusts well and I have used it for some QSOs. I have ordered a base for it from Wally, W6PPP, who has an eBay store that sells a variety of sturdy bases for straight keys as well as knobs for keys.

(4) Adding the sidecar (formally called an attendant console) to my Hamshack Hotline connected Cisco SPA525G2. I can use the sidecar to load up speed dial numbers for connecting to RF nodes, a constant stream of Art Bell shows, or the BBC. If you have a Hamshack Hotline, give me a call: 6100000065.

(5) When the weather clears, I hope to get some work done on the dipole as well as replacing the Davis Vantage Pro2.

News from the shack

     I have had my Elecraft K3 for almost ten years. But I have been remiss at keeping my firmware updated. As part of my effort to square away the shack, I updated the K3 and KAT500 tuner. Elecraft supplies the utility application, which includes a nearly effortless linux version. The K3 update took place through my microHAM USB Interface III connection between my shack computer and the rig; although I had to shutdown fldigi first to allow the utility app to have full access to the USB connection.
     The KAT500 is connected through a 3.5mm stereo connection on the back panel. This took me by surprise, as I would have expected a RS-232 serial connection. The cable for this job is the KXUSB. 3.5mm plug at one end and USB into the computer at the other. The Elecraft utility for the KAT500 worked just as seamlessly.
     The KPA500 requires a serial connection to update the firmware. At first I looked around for a RS-232 serial cable. For years I had a tub full of serial and parallel cables, sitting and gathering dust. Apparently I got rid of the tub and didn’t even keep one. Then I realized I could just use one of the serial to USB connectors I have, which worked great. Updating the KPA500 went as smoothly as the tuner and rig.
     To exercise the rig and the newly organized shack, I have been trying to get on the air. The first way I have tried to do this is through checking into the OMISS Net. I joined OMISS a few years back, but hadn’t checked into a net in a long while. It has been fun making contacts on their 80m, 40m, and 20m nets. With the large number and geographically distributed net participants, it gives me a great idea on how my antenna is performing as well as how propagation is impacted by frequency and time of day… as well as the fickle whims of the HF gods.
     The other opportunity to get on the air has been the Kansas Weather Net. They meet twice a day on 80m: 0700 and 1700 local time. Its a directed net that runs off a set list, but they allow all comers at the end. It is good practice passing a message and allows me to check my equipment for 80m. I’ve made up a “cheat sheet” that gives me the blanks to fill in for my own weather report as well as tracking those participating in the net.
     Participation in the weather net also serves as a reminder that I need to repair/replace my Davis Vantage Pro2 weather station. My dream of using Xastir to run an APRS, including weather data, seems possible – although setup will include many hoops to jump through. At a minimum, I want to be able to pull all my weather report data from my station. Right now, that is not possible.
     Part of the shack cleanup has been offering up unused equipment for sale. So far I have been able to hand off a pair of Bencher paddles, an MFJ combo of a code oscillator, Morse pocket tutor, and set of Skilman Morse training CDs. I’ve also parted with some kits that I didn’t think I’d ever actually build. There is more to part with and I need to keep the pace. It may help fund a replacement Vantage Pro2.