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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.

My Alpha Antenna Adventure

August 24, 2020

I had an interesting adventure with Alpha Antenna, and I wanted to recount it here. To summarize, they gave five star customer service to get a blind ham on 80-10 meters with an Alpha Loop.

I grew up in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, also known as Tree Town USA. My family’s home had beautiful trees and plants in its yards. I had a beautiful 120-foot doublet running through some of them. I remember making contacts on all of the HF bands, 80-10 meters.

Now I live in an apartment which does not allow outdoor antennas, but I still wanted to get on HF. After a lot of research, I settled on the underestimated magnetic loop, to borrow the title of an article. The antenna has a small inner loop, which looks like a sideways oval made of thick cable, measuring around 11 inches wide. This connects to the radio. It then has a larger outer loop, measuring 3 feet in diameter. The antenna sits on a tripod. You manually tune the antenna to the narrow band of frequencies where you want to operate. A magnetic loop trades selectivity for size and efficiency.

The article referenced above states that many people underestimate the magnetic loop because of its diminutive size and narrow selectivity. When I read that I thought:

Wait a minute! I’m skinny, blind, and introverted. People underestimate me all the time because of my diminutive size and narrow selectivity

After reviewing the different commercially available loops I contacted Alpha Antenna and asked if they had any field reports from blind hams. Steven Deines, the owner, replied and assured me that they had, and that I could use the antenna without difficulty. Just tune to the spike in the noise floor, and fine tune to get the best SWR. At the time Alpha Antenna only offered a manually controlled loop. Steve recommended purchasing the loop that went down to 40 meters, because the installation of the booster cable to add 80 meters might prove difficult. It turns out he got that right.

That first loop got me back on air. A few months after I bought it, Alpha Antenna released a remote control unit. I got some help installing it from a handyman who came to install my talking thermostat. Adding the remote really changed everything.

I learned something I wished I had learned sooner, so wanted to include it. You shouldn’t use an antenna tuner with a magnetic loop. In the case of the Elecrat KX3, this means setting the ATU MD menu setting to BYPASS. Tune the antenna by tuning the variable capacitor while watching the SWR. Leave your radio’s tuner out of it. Alpha Antenna wrote an article on their blog which confirmed my observations.

Hams have frequencies across the entire radio spectrum, because different wavelengths behave differently. I could get down to 40 meters, my go to band, but I knew that as the night went on 40 meters would die down while 80 meters remained active. Even though the antenna didn’t support it I could hear WWV blasting in on 5 MHz. When Alpha Antenna announced a new version of the Alpha Loop which went down to 80 meters and with an improved Alpha Match box and a simpler design I decided to upgrade.

I placed the order around Thanksgiving, hoping for a nice holiday present. Unfortunately they had an ice storm, which delayed production. When I did get the loop, I found that the remote control unit did not work. The rotor would turn, but the frequency would not advance. I got my friend Meg, the one who gave me a straight key, to take a look, and she and Steve worked together to fix the problem. It turned out the screws just needed a little tightening.

Finally I could tune, but I had a new problem. I could only get down to about 3710 kHz. The band goes down to 3500 kHz, and I planned to do most of my work in the lower part of the band, where CW (Morse Code) activity takes place. This started a whole back and forth dialog. We went through several cables, but that didn’t help. I decided to pack things up and send everything back. Steve remained supportive.

I had a cursed Field Day. Getting a big enough box took a week because of the pandemic. I had not sent the antennas back yet, so decided to put up the newer one to get better efficiency on 40 meters. When I came upstairs to my shack, I discovered that the power cord to the remote control had fallen out! I quickly unplugged it and packed it up. I put up the older Alpha Loop, and made 10 QSOs.

The next day I decided to try a little operating from my kitchen table, using my AX1 without any power at all, in the true Field Day spirit. I had no success thanks to terrible conditions, so decided to go back to the old loop. When I turned on the remote control, I discovered that it did not work either. I think it had the same weak point. I could not believe it. Both of my antennas had failed on the biggest ham radio day of the year. I cursed and went to have dinner, wondering why I spent so much time and money getting all of this working. Of course, after dinner I started thinking about how to get back on air as quickly as possible. I put up my Buddistick and sent back my loops.

The Buddistick did a good enough job. I made 14 QSOs, including the 13 Colonies bonus station WM3PEN. I belong to HARC, and signed up to operate it, but losing my main antenna thwarted that. I didn’t mind operating from the other side. The operator of the station later told me I gave him a 559, but I’ll take it. I felt glad to get back on air, but missed my loop. It did a better job rejecting the electrical noise which surrounds me. We call it QRM. I especially began to appreciate not needing a counterpoise. I learned that the distance from my window to my front door measures almost exactly 33 feet, the length of a 1/4 wave on 40 meters.

While cleaning up my shack I found one of the outer loops which Steve had sent me to try. I forgot to send it back. I told him about the cable and he said that I didn’t need to worry about sending it back. Now I had an extra cable. This would matter later.

He repaired the remote controls on both antennas. I explained that I have my shack in the loft above the antenna, and had to put a ferrite on the cord in the shack to get rid of a nasty 120 Hz hum on 20 and 15 meters. This stressed the cord, and I promised to remember this when I redeployed the antenna. He crimped the connections, making them stronger. Future units will benefit from this change.

He tested the newer loop. It tuned all the way down to the bottom of 80 meters. He then realized the source of the problem. When I assembled the antenna, I made the outer loop have a round shape. Actually, the outer loop should have the same shape as the inner loop, like a sideways oval. This would then make the bottom part of the booster cable come up more, bringing it closer to the bottom of the outer loop instead of sagging down. The manual did not describe it clearly, and I could not see the photo.

Steve updated the manual and sent me a copy to review. This really impressed me. You can read it for yourself!! Note the part about how the outer loop should have the same shape as the inner loop. Steve put clips and zip-ties on the cables and sent everything back to me. Now I could try it exactly as he intended.

I got the antenna back and could hardly wait to set it up. First I tried going on good old 40 meters. It worked as expected. Now the moment of truth would come. I tuned down to 80 meters. I tried around the SKCC calling frequency of 3550 kHz. I checked the SWR. As soon as my radio emitted a carrier, I lost power in the loft! The circuit breaker tripped. My heart stopped, metaphorically speaking.

After my heart started beating again, metaphorically speaking, I reset the circuit breaker, and went downstairs to investigate. I found the remote control’s cord draped over the antenna. This would have inducted RF into the apartment’s electrical system. I reoriented the antenna and moved the cord so this could not happen again. I had enough radio activity for the night.

I realized that I had another problem. Originally Steve had suggested that i use one loop as the low band antenna, and the other as the high band antenna. I only have a limited amount of space in my apartment, and the more I thought about it the more I wanted to find another solution. While doing Qigong the answer spontaneously occurred to me. I should use the newer loop for the lower bands. When i want to switch to the higher bands I should disconnect and remove the double outer loop, and connect the single outer loop. I remembered the cable I forgot to send back, and the pieces slid into place. Most users switch to the higher bands by connecting and disconnecting the booster cable, but connecting and disconnecting the whole loop would make the process much easier.

Two days later I got up the courage to try again. The North American QSO Party would happen, presenting the perfect opportunity. I popped off the double loop and connected the single loop. I worked 3 stations on 20 meters. I then took off the single loop and put on the double loop. I worked 2 stations on 40 meters. My idea worked! I decided to take the plunge and tune down to 80 meters. I checked my SWR. Nervously I tried responding to a station. I didn’t lose power, and completed the exchanged. By the end of the night I had completed 14 QSOs on 80 meters, and nothing bad happened. Everything worked!

This brings me to the end of a long quest to get on 80-10 meters from my condo. Alpha Antenna gave me excellent support, and we ended up improving the product. It still amazes me that I can work 80-10 meters from an antenna which sits on a tripod by my window. It takes me back to my childhood in Swarthmore with my doublet. I still miss the trees.

OnePlus Phones get a OneMinus for Accessibility

August 05, 2020

The time has come to upgrade my Android phone. Two and a half years ago I got an Essential Phone. I enjoyed the stock Android experience, but the company went out of business. Major operating system updates stopped, and my battery has begun to lose its charge. Say what you will about Essential, but they addressed every accessibility issue. I use TalkBack, Android’s screen reader for the blind, so this meant a lot.

I read a number of reviews of the leading Android phones as of July 2020. Critics consistently recommended the OnePlus 8 Pro. It runs their own version of Android called OxygenOS. A quick search turned up a Stack Exchange post telling sighted people how to turn off TalkBack, so I knew that the built-in accessibility gesture would work. I decided to opt for the OnePlus 8 because I didn’t need the better display or wireless charging.

It arrived the next day from Amazon and I began setting it up. I found one or two unlabeled controls during the installation, but nothing which stopped me. I did not like having the fingerprint sensor in the glass so I could not feel it, and OxygenOS did not provide any spoken feedback. I found that Face ID worked more accurately in many environments, but neither worked perfectly.

I transferred all of my information with OnePlus Switch. I even got my music and ringtones. I appreciated the full sounding stereo audio. I talked to some friends using Signal and TeamTalk, and they all said that I sounded better than I did on the Essential Phone. I instantly saw the appeal of the three-position ringer switch. I found the shape of the phone ergonomically pleasing. I began to love my OnePlus 8. Then I got a phone call.

TalkBack told me to swipe up with two fingers to answer, but it did not work. I tried several times, getting more frantic with each futile swipe. I only had a blank screen and a ringing phone. I could not find any controls to activate. Nothing worked. The phone stopped ringing, and I got a voicemail message. I called voicemail and brought up the keypad. The buttons did not work! I found an unlabeled button at the bottom of the screen which I hoped would hang up the phone. Luckily, it did.

I used another phone to make more calls and had the same result, and with it the same terrible realization: I had purchased a shiny new smart phone which wouldn’t let me answer the phone! Clearly they had done no accessibility testing. It felt like a slap in the face.

A web search turned up a post on their community about the inaccessible swipe gestures], and another specifically about the keypad issue. Obviously they never resolved either. The path of least resistance became clear.

I returned the OnePlus 8. It currently sits downstairs, waiting for the UPS courier to bring it back from whence it came. I learned my lesson. I will stick with stock Android from now on. I wonder which phone I should buy.

A Straight Key from a Friend

June 18, 2020

I recently saw my friend Meg. I began paying her to drive me shortly before the pandemic began. I like not needing to deal with a stranger for my transportation during these times. When I got in her car, she said that she had something to give me, and placed an object in my hand.

I turned the mystery object over in my hands, and felt a straight key! Ham radio operators use a Key to send Morse Code. Straight keys date back to the beginning of telegraphy. This one had a wooden base and a plastic arm. It had some adjustment screws and a headphone cable to connect to the radio.

I felt stunned. I had begun thinking about buying a portable straight key to bring up to the roof deck. I imagined something light weight, maybe with a wood base. I now held the object I had visualized in my hand.

“It’s a straight key!” I exclaimed.

“Do you like straight keys?” asked Meg.

“I love straight keys!”

“Do you have one?”

“I have two!”

“Do you want this one?”

Of course I said yes.

I need to tell a quick aside. Last year Meg had a science fair, and asked me to have a ham radio table. At first we set up in the basement, but my KX3 emitted a sad whine, so we moved up to the parking lot near the pizza truck. Donna made pizza which i couldn’t eat, but she remembered that her science teacher taught them ham radio. She sounded delighted when I found him on QRZ, KC2JJ, silent key.

Our friend Becky helped me the whole time. Meg and Becky with a few others have what they call a science band named Mystery Lab Bag. At some point they bought the straight key, but didn’t know what to do with it. This explains how I ended up with it.

Later Meg sent me more information about the key. She identified it as an MFJ-553 Deluxe wood base Telegraph Key. It makes a fine portable key. I just need to get an adapter to make it fully connect to the Elecraft KX3, which requires a stereo plug. For now I can put it half way in, but I prefer firm connections.

I told Meg that the Straight Key Century Club would have their Weekend Sprint, and that I intended to use her key. I headed up to the roof deck on Saturday to do just that. I decided to try my Buddistick with a shorter length of coax. It tuned to an SWR of 1.6:1, but I didn’t make any contacts. I came down for dinner and came back up. I tried again and this time it would not tune at all. I felt annoyed and switched to my trusty AX1. I made 3 QSOs and had a great evening.

I went back up on Sunday and decided to use my AX1. I made two more QSOs, including Randy, KB4QQJ. He made me a cable for my KX3, so I like to work him when I hear him. To my delight he gave me a 579, and I had the AX1 resting against my canteen’s plastic cap. I still need to find something for the wind.

I came down for a snack, and when I returned my trusty AX1 would not tune. I appeared to have the same problem I had on the previous day with a different antenna. I could not figure it out and decided to call it a night. Clearly I have some testing to do.

In all I made five fun QSOs with my new straight key. It performed as expected, and it survived its first trip up to the roof deck. Thanks Meg! Imagination becomes reality.

My Qigong Tree

June 12, 2020

I have had weekly Qigong lessons for over two years. My teacher Iris Kitagawa-Rainey would come every week and we would go in my building’s yoga room, or Qigong room as I started calling it. Then the pandemic happened.

We didn’t see each other for two and a half sad months. My practice continued uninterruptedly. Qigong truly showed its value. As things started to ease up a little we began talking about meeting again, but they had closed the yoga room.

We have a park down the street, and I wondered about going there. Iris thought it sounded like a great idea. They say that optimally you should practice Qigong with your bare feet in the Earth. We picked a day with pleasant weather and finally met.

We walked to the park, basically a straight shot. I showed Iris how to find a shoreline - a constant guide for use with a cane. We made our way to a tree and began class. I couldn’t remember the last time my bare feet had touched the Earth.

It felt wonderful! Wind blew through the leaves of the tree above me. My hands would occasionally brush against them. The sun streamed down. Birds sang. Even the noise from the traffic and the others in the park felt welcome.

I felt the stress of the last few months begin to wash away. A little bit of normalcy had returned. We have returned to my Qigong tree a few times since then. The pandemic forced us to find it.

My First QRP DX

June 03, 2020

Some time ago I worked my first DX contact with a long distance station. I forgot to reduce power from 15 Watts to 5 Watts, so it didn’t count as true QRP, defined as 5 Watts. On Sunday I had some time to work the CQ WW WPX DX CW contest. In this special event you can score points for making Morse Code contacts, with bonus points for long distance stations. I thought I would go on 20 meters in the last few hours, closest to twilight. I previously had good luck working the gray line. The contest ended at 08:00 PM local time.

I worked a few stations in Canada, but mostly worked America. I tried a few DX stations. I heard their calls and would circle around between them, trying to get through with my little QRP signal. I landed on DL6FBL for the second or third time. His call’s prefix of DL6 told me that he came from Germany. I decided to call.

He responded! I always get a little rush when I hear my call come back to me, and this time I could hardly believe it. We completed the exchange of information and I logged it. It took me a few minutes to fully experience the realization of what I had done. The QRZ app shows the distance as 3803 miles, a new personal best. Not bad for 5 watts into a magnetic loop!

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