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Welcome to my home page. I became blind at birth. I started programming computers at a young age. I also earned my general class amateur radio license, KA3TTT, a hobby to which I have returned with great joy. I practice Qigong, and consider it the most important thing in my life. I cook gluten-free vegan meals. I use Linux as my desktop and Android as my mobile OS. For the rest you'll have to read my blog.

A Party during the Pandemic

May 09, 2020

Ham radio has provided a lot of joy during the pandemic. Firstly, I had the strangest Easter I have ever had, though not the worst. Our family could not have dinner together, so I joined in the SKCC Weekend Sprint. I worked five stations during the relaxing weekend. A special highlight came when I worked the KS8KCC bonus Egg station right at the end. I plan to volunteer as an Egg station next year.

That brings me to this weekend. We finally had a nice sunny spring day in Philadelphia, so I packed up my Elecraft KX3 and went up to the roof. I always bring the AX1 antenna, but I decided to bring the Buddistick to give it a try. I had no idea what I would find when I got up there.

I opened the roof deck door, and some people greeted me. I had walked into a party. A few guys drank beers and chatted. I explained that I wanted to set up my ham radio, and asked if they would mind. Quite the opposite. They got right into it - asking questions about the antenna, how radio waves interact with the atmosphere, and what I can do with the radio. I told them about my contact to Costa Rica.

I tried setting up my Buddistick, but could not tune it to an acceptable SWR. I got down to about 3.5:1 or 3.2:1, but you really need it below 2:1. SWR stands for Standing Wave Ratio, the amount of radio waves which reflect back and cancel out. A ratio of 1:1 means all of your radio frequency energy goes out the antenna.

I straightened the coax, though perhaps not enough. I adjusted the length of the counterpoise and coil tack. Nothing seemed to do the trick. The guys didn’t care. They enjoyed watching me try to get it working. One works as a mechanical engineer, and helped me tighten a bolt. He appreciated the DIY spirit of the hobby.

While rummaging around in the Buddistick’s case, I heard something fall onto the ground.

“It’s this box thing.”

someone said.

“Oh, my ferrite fell!” I replied, and picked it up.

“Your what?” he replied with a note of concern. “Your ferret fell?”

“No, my Ferrite! A mixture of metals we use to keep the cable from acting like an antenna. We use them to eliminate radio frequency interference.”

. At this point I just wanted to get on the air. I vowed to come back to the Buddistick later, and connected the AX1. Elecraft makes this antenna to work with the radio, and it tuned to a 1:1 SWR on the first try. The AX1 saved the day!

We had several QSO parties going on throughout the weekend. A QSO means a ham radio contact, and a QSO Party refers to a contest in which you try to work as many stations in a state or area as possible. Within a few minutes I worked W7AI, the Oro Valley Amateur Radio Club in Tucson, Arizona, 2056 miles away! The guys loved it. They wondered aloud about the physics involved in sending a signal that far. I invited them to additionally consider that I did it using 5 Watts of power, or QRP. The magic of radio still amazes me.

They went back to their party and I went back to my radio. I yelled out each station as I worked it and they cheered.

All of these contacts took place on 20 meters starting around 06:00 PM. I went down to get dinner and returned at 09:00 PM.

I switched to 40 meters using the AXE1 extender for the AX1, and found the New England QSO Party in full swing. The guys came back to party a little more as well, but said good night as I got back into the radio. I had a strange dystopian Coronavirus moment as I sent Morse Code alone in the night from the roof of my building while wearing a mask and sunglasses. At least this time it happened during a party. I worked five stations within a half hour. I finished with the NE1QP bonus station and called it a night.

I woke the next day with a low grade headache, but felt determined to get back to the party. I did some Qigong and got on air around 03:00 PM. I didn’t feel like going outside, so stayed in my shack using the Alpha Loop. Sending and receiving high speed Morse Code doesn’t exactly complement a headache, but I kept the sidetone low and the AF gain (what we call the volume) as low as possible. The static and the sounds of radio soothed me, but my brain had to work quickly.

I have a positive association with New England, especially Boston, because I went there for my eye appointments all through my childhood and into high school. We would often go on family car trips around the area while there. I had fun going on a radio trip around New England. By the end of the QSO party at 08:00 PM I had worked twenty-one stations in total. All of my contacts with New England happened on 40 meters. Both antennas performed well. I felt content despite the headache.

A few days later my family returned to the roof deck to celebrate my nephew Demian’s fourth birthday. My family hadn’t seen each other in a few months due to the pandemic. As Demian’s birthday approached I thought about the party over the weekend, and suggested the roof deck as a location. Everyone loved the idea, and we all had a great time. I think Demian would make an excellent ham! He already understands that the Earth orbits the sun.

I would like to close this article with a response to a joke. A friend sent me a tweet which said that we have not invented a vaccine for social media. I would like to suggest that actually we invented one over a hundred years ago. We call it ham radio. Every time I go on social media I feel like running back to my radio as quickly as possible. The vaccine works!

My First DX

May 05, 2020

I worked my first DX during the ARRL Inter DX CW contest in February. DX means a long distance station. CW stands for Continuous Wave, Morse Code. I didn’t think I had very good chances of actually making a contact. After all, what chance did my little QRP station have against one of the big guns? I tried throughout the weekend, but couldn’t break through any of the pileups. I began to feel a little discouraged.

At the same time I tried my hand in the AM QSO Party. This contest allowed a low power station to have a maximum of 25 Watts, since AM requires more power than Morse Code. I cranked my KX3 up to its maximum of 15 watts, but didn’t have any luck. Despite this I still enjoyed listening to the interesting vintage equipment used by many in the contest. One guy used a transmitter repurposed from a submarine in World War II from 1943.

Back to the Inter DX contest, as things wound down I heard TI7W calling CQ from Costa Rica, a distance of 2119 miles. I tried a few times, and to my pleasant surprise he responded to my call! I had worked Costa Rica using a magnetic loop antenna sitting by my window sill. Incredible!

The QSO happened around sundown, and this got me researching Gray Line Propagation, a fascinating matter. The ionosphere cools upward from the bottom as the sun sets, which affects the way radio signals behave. A low power signal like mine can travel a greater distance with no attenuation. The gray line tends to go from north to south, which would also explain why I got Costa Rica. I love ham radio!

I realized after the contact that I had forgotten to reduce power from 15 Watts down to the usual 5 Watts, so it does not count as a valid QRP DX. I will let you know when that happens.

Rediscovering Radio

March 17, 2020

As the Coronavirus situation unfolded, it became clear to me that I needed to buy a new radio. It seemed strangely absurd to me that I had all this fancy ham radio equipment, but nothing to receive commercial AM/FM radio. Recently Handiham featured the Sangean PR-D17 talking radio especially designed for the blind. I know the brand so decided to buy one.

When it arrived I received the notification on my door, then shortly afterward the super-attendant knocked on my door.

“A package for you! You ordered a radio?”

“Yeah. How did you know?”

“Oh, it’s just the box.”

And he meant it. He handed me the box which held the radio - no outer box or other packaging of any kind. I opened it and took out the radio, then nervously washed my hands and cleaned it.

The radio itself has some positive points and a possible negative. It lives up to Sangean’s standards. It had no problem receiving all of the local AM and FM stations from my condo. I easily hooked it up to my stereo, and had no problem configuring it or setting the time manually or using RDS. The built-in speakers sound big and wonderful. It pleasantly surprised me that the radio has an Aux-In, so I could connect anything I want, such as a cell phone or even a ham radio. It takes 6 C-cell batteries, and I predict that this radio will spend some considerable time on the roof deck this summer.

I wanted to address one possible negative. The frequency reads every time you turn the tuning knob. Of course I would prefer smooth analog tuning, but I will put up with digital tuning on the commercial bands. Hearing the frequency at each step renders this far less useful. It takes away the experience of scanning through the dial. If a way exists to turn it off then I haven’t see nit. The manual made no mention.

In summary, average non-radio blind people will love this radio. You can easily scan through the dial and program in five presets for AM and FM. It sounds great and you can take it with you. More radio-oriented blind people will not like the constant readouts as you try to scan through the dial manually. Sighted people should probably choose one without the voice announcements altogether. Check out the PR-D17 for yourself!

Radio died sometime around 1992, and I have not really listened to terrestrial radio in about twenty-five years. I got it more to receive local information during an emergency. I quickly found WOGL 98.1 FM, and had a surreal experience listening to it again. While growing up I listened to WCAU 98.1. One day I woke up, and heard oldies. I thought my radio had broken, but the station identified itself as WOGL 98.1. My Mom explained that radio stations change formats, and read me an article in the newspaper about the change. That experience stayed with me.

Now time has passed and things have come full circle. WOGL plays the 80s music I grew up with. I made my own 80s playlist and prefer it, but listening to a local station gives a sense of community. They periodically give local news and weather. I just wish I’d hear more human voices during this time of social distancing. Automation has taken its toll. On the other hand, I enjoy knowing that others listen to the same song at this moment.

Welcome Back to the World

February 07, 2020

Welcome to my new upgraded web site! This marks the completion of a long migration to a new server. The last two years have changed me. The song Through Being Cool, by Devo perfectly expresses how I feel.

I have decided to stop doing freelance accessibility consulting so that I may focus on my own work. Note the backwards compatible switch from austinseraphin.com to austinseraphin.net. This does not mean that I will never do any professional work ever again, it simply means that it will not happen on this domain.

Get ready for a lot more Qigong and a lot more ham radio.

QRP for Apartments

January 16, 2020

I run a QRP (low power) station from my Philadelphia condo. They do not allow outdoor antennas, so I use a magnetic loop. It sits on a tripod by my window. I chose QRP partly because I did not want to cause interference to the 53 other apartments in the building.

Last night I got one of my neighbor’s packages delivered to my door. She messaged me on Facebook, and I left it by her door. I figured I may as well tell her about my ham radio station. I worried that she would respond with something like “Oh, you’re the reason I hear that weird buzzing and muffled speech!” Instead, she replied that she hadn’t noticed anything.

I said that I participated in a contest (the CW NAQP) for ten hours on Saturday, so if she didn’t notice anything so far then I don’t feel worried. I thanked her for the confirmation and said that it means a lot, and it does.

Stay safe with QRP!

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