“Better spend money on free stuff than on wallpaper.”

A while ago I read an interesting article about free stuff on the internet and how it really isn’t free or shouldn’t be free. Too bad I didn’t save the link and Google only returns me a list of sites that try to offer me things I probably don’t need – for free. Much ado about free stuff on the Interwebz! In a nutshell: the author of the article pointed out that free on the internet is not really free. There is always something to be paid, how small the amount may be. Who pays for the hosting of the website? And the bandwidth for the Internet traffic?

I reflected this on amateur radio of course. Take for instance contesting’s most popular free item: N1MMLogger. What is needed to make this product? Chief N1MM has gathered a skilled code writing posse of a dozen people. These people use a PC, but they would have had one anyway for personal or business purposes so we can exclude this PC from the cost. They need a version of the VB programming software, but since most of them are in one way or another involved with programming and computer stuff, they would have a license anyway. The team communicates through the Internet but they would have had access without being involved in the N1MM-project. These developers invest a huge amount of their free time. But free time is free by definition. So far, there is no specific cost made to bring us N1MMLogger.

But how is N1MMLogger brought to a few thousand people? By means of a website. A website that needs to be hosted on a machine. This machine is maintained by a company that feeds it AC power, keeps it cool and installs current software on the server for fast page loading. Furthermore this machine is connected to the Internet so every user can read the online manual and download the latest program updates. Big files times many users equals a huge amount of monthly traffic. Keeping the server online with a fast connection comes with a bill. The end of ‘free’. Who should pay for this? Tom N1MM alone? That would not be fair, even if he splits the bill among his team. Which would be even more unfair: co-developers needing to pay to be allowed to help out. These people already invest their free time for us to enjoy a super piece of software. It’s only logical that the bill is paid by the users, even if the product is free. It’s the least we can do for ten years of free contest logging with such a fine program. I did not hesitate after reading this message and donated a small amount, and a lot of loyal hams followed me: “Thanks to the generosity of the N1MM Logger community, we met our goal in less than 5 hours.” A small amount from my side, but multiplied by the number of donators it can add up to a nice sum.

There is another free service on the Internet. One that probably is used by more people than N1MMLogger. One that is often used on a daily base. It’s called ClubLog and if you don’t know this or never have used this, you’re not an active 21st century DXer. Period.

ClubLog by Michael G7VJROnline DXpedition logs became popular along with the Internet in the beginning of the previous decade. Each expedition had their own way of making the logs available. Halfway this previous decade online QSL services like LotW and eQSL popped up. And now there is ClubLog. Forget all the rest! I don’t really use ClubLog for uploading my own QSO (shame on me but too little time, I will later on!) but I use their Prefix and Exception Table XML file in my own software to check the UBA contest logs. As such I exchanged a couple of software related emails with ClubLog inventor and designer Michael G7VJR. I was charmed by ClubLog’s functionality, statistics and pretty user interface. Much more funny information and nice charts which LotW can only dream of. LotW with it’s simple outdated rigid user interface measured to modern day web design standards. I’m a big fan of statistics and charts so I kind of owe it to Michael to upload my 150k QSO so far. It’s on the ‘to do’ list but I want to combine it with a small software project.

ClubLog is especially known to host online and sometimes even real time DXpedition logs. A few months ago HK0NA, VP6T and TN2T were active at the same time with the online logs hosted by ClubLog. Periods like these stress ClubLog’s infrastructure. To send out the data to thousands of users loading the pages simultaneously, the ClubLog website must run on a potent server with a fast broadband connection to the Internet. Quote from their website:

Club Log is a very intensive application that analyzes a vast database, and it also receives large volumes of visitors. For example, hosting a large expedition typically results in over a million page loads in a few weeks. This means the servers and internet connections used to run the service are expensive commodities.

And to conclude and kill the ‘free’ myth: “The annual running costs for Club Log are approximately £3,500”.

There you go: if there is no free lunch then there certainly is no free seven course banquet! So as a follow up to my “Why pay 200 $ for 5BDXCC paper”, I’d rather donate a few Euros left and right to DXpeditions bringing us on the air fun of chasing DX, and to ClubLog for enhancing the DX fun with the online log, propagation time slot charts and zone/DXCC leader boards.

Think about it. Think about these ‘free’ services. Think about ClubLog when you visit the next DXpedition’s online log a dozen times a day or more to see if you’re in the log. Maybe you don’t pay because it’s free but be aware that someone has to pay the bills. There must be a word to describe someone who uses something that’s being paid for by other people? Why not just chip in a few Dollars / Euros if you actually use it?

I warned you last time (here) that I started thinking about some things in Ham Radio…

Years ago I selected a stack of carefully treasured QSL cards, filled in the requiered documents and took the works to the ARRL DXCC Field Checker for Belgium. I paid a fee and received a certificate that is now framed and a part of the shack: “DXCC CW”. A while later I jumped on the LotW-bandwagon and got an endorsement for another few dozen entities. Honnestly: achieving basic DXCC means squat.  It’s easy. Even 250 entitites CW only is easy. It’s easy with a setup like mine that is. Running QRP with an indoor antenna might be a bigger challenge.

A little harder but still quite manageable is 5 Band DXCC. Since I put up the 80m vertical and added a touch of QRO, even on 80m there is nothing hard about working 100 entities from here in EU. I have lost track of the score in paper cards let alone finding the cards. So thanks to LotW one day I achieved 5B DXCC CW. Nothing I consider special and I didn’t specifically work towards it – it just happenend along the way. And I was glad I discovered it, as you can read in my “5BDXCC in CW” post a few years ago.

So why not apply for the 5BDXCC award through the LotW system? A few clicks, a few bucks – et voilà. Not so it seems. I didn’t find a way to do this in one easy move. So I quit looking. Then I came across AE5X‘s post called: “Economics of DXing – the $200 5B-DXCC“. I quote:

For 5B-DXCC, the ARRL requires such an applicant to apply (and pay for) 5 separate DXCC certificates. You can then pay an additional fee for the plaque to adorn your I Love Me wall. The 5 certs cost $135, the plaque is $65. At first that sounded expensive since everything is virtual.

AE5X concludes that 200 US Dollars for LotW 5B DXCC is a bargain compared to ‘the old skool paper QSL alternative’ which takes longer and sending direct cards to rare entities with return postage for a few hundred cards is much more expensive. He’s right when you look at it his way.

ON5ZO's Alternative DXCC Wallpaper

ON5ZO's Alternative DXCC Wallpaper

But I look at it ON5ZO’s way, of course. 200 US $ for what? For another paper on my wall that apart from myself hardly anyone ever sees? As a written proof of me having 5x 100 entities confirmed on the 5 regular HF bands? My LotW DXCC standings table already shows it and is as good as a written proof! And a 5BDXCC plaque is something that you actually buy. I can go to the awards and trophy shop in the next town and have myself engraved a plaque for whatever achievement.
Furthermore I have a rule about money spent on the hobby. Every possible purchase or investment is checked against these simple conditions: “Will it bring me more DX? Will it improve my score in contesting? Will it enhance my fun on the bands?”. Well: 200 $ for 5B DXCC fails miserably on all three.

Yes the XYL sometimes calls me a grumpy old man since the BBC aired the series with the same name. She even bought me a Grumpy mug! Indeed sometimes there is something that I’m grumpy about. No that’s a lie. There are always a few things that are bothering me. That’s the way I am. But since I decided to keep this a ham-only blog, I will only reveal what has been bothering me on the ham front.

  • Is it the poor propagation after a short but intense period of great conDX during October-December 2011? Not really, c’est la vie. Nothing we can do about it.
  • Is it the poor behaviour on the ham bands, in DXpedition’s pile ups especially? When I’m listening to the zoo it effectively aggravates me but soon I QSY to work my own DX. Not much we can do about the pigs on the bands in spite of all dedicated educational websites.
  • Is it the fact that I don’t know whether to buy or not to buy a second amplifier for SO2R? And if so, what brand/model? No not at all, this is 100% a luxury problem and nothing to get grumpy about.
  • Maybe I’m grumpy because I did not participate in the ARRL SSB contest last weekend? No, not even that. Too many contests in a row so I voluntarily skipped the SSB contest.

But there is a side effect of this contest that has gotten me a tad grumpy. In facts it’s a few related straws over the last weeks that broke the camel’s back. The name of the culprit is: “Abuse of DX cluster by Belgian participants in contests”. Note that I don’t use the idiom ‘contesters’.

In fact, the origin of my grumpiness about this is rooted deeply. Maybe it’s even twofold. Nothing against DX clusters here. If the contest I enter has a special ‘assisted’ class, I enter it most of the times. Let’s make it clear: I have no beef with DX clusters and their intended use. It doesn’t even have to be DX that is spotted. Bandmaps need to get filled so bring on the spots. The more the merrier. Apart from lids posting silly comments and busted calls, that goes without saying (does it really, these days?).

The first issue I have with the combo clusters-contest-Belgians is: why don’t Belgian participants in DX contests submit as assisted when they were connected to the cluster? I think I know why. a) because they don’t know what assisted or unassisted is, b) because they don’t care about it and c) because N1MMLogger is the most used contest software and it has Single Operator as the default category in stead of Single Op Assisted. And with reasons a + b there is no chance issue c should get solved. How do I tell they actually use the cluster and not just be connected? They appear in almost every packet spot pile up!

At this point, I can hear most of you think: “What’s the fuss? Calm down ON5ZO, who cares anyway? It’s only a hobby.” Yes it’s only a hobby and obviously not many people care but you can also enjoy the hobby by playing it fair. Especially if you are seriously in the contest. But there is more than this unclaimed assisted thing.

Until now it was only about the ‘clandestine but proper use of the DX cluster’. There is a worse part: Cluster Cowboys gone bonanza! Many moons ago, when I was actively involved in the UBA, I tried to move some things but soon I discovered that some things cannot be moved. Like cluster abuse and complaints thereof. Now I am no longer officially involved but as a log checker I sometimes get to eat in the UBA’s kitchen. Determining cluster abuse and complaints about it have been on the menu each year. I even used this page to try to move things but all I got was an angry email in reply. Some conversation back and forth tempered the anger and got the cat out of the bag: “We are just starting out so how on earth should we know all these things?” Point taken. But the person quoted here is a member of one of the biggest Belgian ham radio clubs – if not THE biggest. That very club has some very good contesters on the member list and not just casual contest participants. So maybe a club should not only teach its members how to connect to a DX cluster, it should also educate them about the use of it and point out where use ends and abuse starts.

Of course that is the view of ‘teacher ON5ZO’ who believes that people should be educated. It’s in my blood. It’s my job. I am always willing to learn myself and I’m glad that skilled and educated people correct me when I’m doing something wrong. Only people that have some authority on the subject of course, quacks beware! But unfortunately I have also learned along the way that Belgians don’t like to be taught or worse: corrected. You soon get the label ‘annoying know-it-all’. On a wider scale there currently is no support from the UBA for contest-specific education. And given the above story, local clubs fail too.

Just like last year there were a few severe cases of cluster abuse in the UBA DX SSB 2012. Self spotting in disguise. Defendant’s plea: “It’s not my own call that spotted me sir.” No, actually it’s your son’s living under your roof. Or your friend’s callsign that is also appearing on the operator list. It almost exclusively happens in the SSB part where there are many Cluster Cowboys participating in the contest. I received a few emails about this problem again this year. But Sheriff ON5ZO has turned in his star and six shooter a long time ago so he has no longer jurisdiction. The CW part on the other hand is mostly populated by more experienced contesters that don’t suffer this disease or in a much milder form worst case. Now the ball is in the UBA Contest Committee’s camp: bark or bite? Or more emphasis on education?

But it was all about abuse of the DX cluster here, right? Sometimes the educator in me wants to write an article about this matter to get it published in either the printed or electronic version of the UBA’s magazine. When I talk it over with some ham friends, they say: “Why bother? What’s the use?” Indeed, why should I bother? Just because it pisses me off? No one is waiting for this I guess. However my grumpiness hit a climax last weekend. There was this clown on the bands who seems to miss the point too. In the contest he managed to get spotted by 28 times by 2 or 3 ‘local callsigns’. It’ll be fun to watch that log get accepted by the ARRL, who calls this ‘cheerleading’. Contest sponsors like K5ZD for CQ WPX tell us we should address these people and apply ‘peer pressure’. For a moment I wanted to do so, but then again: why bother?

There you go, I said it. I feel less grumpy. For now…

This is a copy from my post on 3830:

Last year I planned to do only 12 hours but I had so much fun I stuck around and did the 24 hours. I set the ON record to 628k points. This year I wanted to do better and set my targets for the 24 hours category. I think I did quite well.

I had 800 QSO after 8 hours and then it slowed down as usual. I slept from 01.00 to 05.00 utc. There is no activity at night to keep on
going. I had hoped for a VE on 80 but none called and those worked on 40 and asked,declined my request to QSY.

A lot of rude behavior in the small pile ups. Impatient callers killing the rate and spoiling the fun. This was in a little contest for a simple Belgian – imagine a DXpedition to a rare DXCC in CQ WW! Come on people, where is this going to end? LISTEN and control yourself!

Best band once again: 15m!
Maybe I worked less USA on 10m than a week before but they sure were LOUDER this time. Many JA’s there too.

Not much more to add. I started with aggressive SO2R and trying to move multipliers. A PY on 15 was successfully moved from 15 to 10. A VP2 didn’t want to move. I could maintain a 100/hr rate until the night fel. NA was doing their RTTY thing and EU was either on 160 or asleep. Not much to do except go to bed too. With a VE on 80m in the log I would have gone earlier but I kept trying without luck. No VE mult on 80 although I worked a bunch on 40.

When I got up and back on track I checked the M/S crew ON6BR serial number and they were still handing out lower numbers than my last QSO before I slept. I listened to see how they were doing once in a while and the split became even bigger as the morning progressed.

I managed to put down a good score here. Improving it is possible with better propagation (though it was quite good this weekend) or more overnight activity. The latter will be hard because there is no real incentive for EU / NA to stay awake. It was a fun event by all means.

I imagine ON4BHQ kidding: “You’ve become the Poulidor of contesting!”. Poulidor goes by the name of ‘Eternally Second’. After UBA SSB it’s now in the ARRL DX CW that I have second place in Belgium. OT2A beat me in the Unlimited HP category for first ON. Last year he beat me too in claimed scores but I won after log checking (remember?). This time the difference is too big for him not to survive in the log checking process. I always get beaten on multipliers but not so this time. I even have ten more. But I lack QSO. I think I know why. “A man is always smarter afterwards” to quote my father.

Comparison of claimed scores between OQ5M and OT2A

My quest for mults on 160 and 80 cost me a lot of time. I kept CQ’ing at a very slow rate to work at least some multipliers. Conditions on these two bands were absolutely horrible. I worked more multipliers yes, but at what cost? The cost of higher rate and more QSO on 40m.

It’s not that I did not know what was going on at the time. As soon as I saw the first packet spot for OT2A I knew ‘Country Winner’ would not come easy. I decided to keep a close eye on OT2A without him even knowing. I made use of the Reverse Beacon Network website. Yes I know: I said I don’t like Skimmers and all but this is different 😮

I opened a ‘DX SPot Search’ window on the OT2A callsign and as soon as OT2A launched a CQ on any band, I knew he would be in the window. So I could follow his every move. Most of the time we were on the same band. Propagation dictates that. But I didn’t always agree with his choices although I understood. Sometimes I was grinding 80/160 for a QSO in the hope for a multiplier while he was on 40m. I knew the possibility that 40m would produce more rate, which it did it seems, but I really did not want to get beaten on mults. So now, afterwards I am smarter. The extra mults don’t make up for another 200 QSO on 40m. End of story.

I also used what I like most about the RBN: the Signal Comparison Tool. I learned that in most cases I was as loud as OT2A on a given Skimmer RX. Which is good because OT2A is a BIG station. Except on 40 where he usually was louder. Once again it is proven: my setup offers a lot of fun but bigger is better and height plays for horizontally polarized antennas especially when the wavelength goes up.

But Skimmers aren’t everything. There is still a big advantage of classic packet cluster spots. At one point OT2A and I were both on 10m, a few kHz away. He got a classic packet spot and things were slow (ten was horrible) so I went to listen. K0HA calls him for the NE mult. I turn green in envy and hit CTRL+Q to jump back to my CQ QRG. I’m only a few kHz away so if K0HA scans the band he’ll bump into me. Not so. Never heard him. I don’t know if he was ‘assisted’ or not but I assume he saw the spot for OT2A, worked the multiplier and went away. No classic spot for me = no NE mult. But later on it gave me an idea. Needing NE on 20, I openend up another RBN Spot Search window looking out for K0HA on 20m. As soon as he sent ‘CQ’ on 14 MHz, I’d be on top of him. And so I did and worked my NE multiplier.

For a second I was disappointed that OT2A beat me. I’m a contester and I like to win and be on top of things in Belgium. But then again: I had a good time and made the most of it given my limited setup. I only miss out on a piece of paper. Which is nothing for a weekend of big fun working only DX on all bands. And it’s more fun to have some competition than to be the only one and be ‘Country Winner’ with only 32 QSO like it happened to me  a few years ago in ARRL DX SSB.

What also could enhance the competition and ‘race’ feeling is if more people would make use of the real time score reporting possibility. I sent my score to Getscores.org but you’d need more people and especially high scorers to make it really fun. There also a Russian alternative for that but there were even less scores reported there. Maybe next time?