04 August 2016

August 2016 - Far Side DX blog

Aug 4: over on the CDXC reflector, we've been discussing the dreadful operating heard in a recent PJ6Y pileup. Paul M0YMJ asked "I wonder what training these people have in the various offending countries during their exams. I just seems a free for all, just like shouting in a crowd. The loudest may get heard if the person bullies their way through. I must admit I do prefer CW where this happens less. But what can you do ?"

I responded first with a quip about the Brits' legendary love of queueing. Despite what you might think, behavioural studies in some situations (such as boarding aircraft) show that an appropriate degree of disorder and selfishness can actually improve the total throughput or rate, compared to a more regimented approach. 

The key phrase is 'to an appropriate degree'. It's a fine line between acceptable chaos and panic.

I fondly recall contesting on 40m at GW8GT back in the 80s when calling “JA3?” would be met by stony silence as an enormous pile of JAs ALL patiently waited their turn. Today, other JAs are more likely to break the silence, especially if it is clear that there are no JA3s calling. However, operators in large parts of Southern Europe (in particular) pay no heed to each other or total throughput, taking selfishness to new heights. The continuous callers are a pain for all concerned, especially the numpties with the over-developed amygdalas and shrunken testes who call repeatedly over the DX, deluding themselves that sending “UP UP UP YOU IDIOT UP HES WORKING SPLIT JEEZ” is the least bit helpful. 

There are several things we can do about it, starting with getting our own act in order. I sometimes get over-excited in pileups to the point of frustration and, yes, calling out of turn - for example consciously calling Phillipe FO4BM yesterday when he was calling “CQ East coast” implying the right coast of North America.

If I catch myself in time, I’ve learnt to take a break or at least back-off a notch, listen more intently, and have more respect for other callers and for the DX ops, and always to be as slick and efficient as possible in the exchange. Listening hard is essential and timing is key. Yesterday, I did call Phillipe, partly because I live on the East coast ... of North Island, New Zealand. 

Most of the burden for 'doing something about it' falls on the DX operator. Phillipe eventually heard me in the US pile and graciously thanked me for waiting (I was only calling occasionally). He was definitely ‘in charge’ and handled the pile like a pro. It’s an acquired skill though. Successful contesters and DX ops (at both ends of the pile) have lots of practice and care about this stuff enough to want to improve their own performance. There’s more to it than Nigel G3TXF’s legendary UK-ears, or the dreaded calling-by-numbers, but even split operating and locking the right VFO is beyond the capabilities of some DXers, it seems!

Aside from all that, we’re left with awareness and education (such as sharing, promoting and discussing the DX Code of Conduct*, and talking about incidents and good practices we’ve heard on air), plus training (e.g. covering operating techniques and ethics in license courses and books), plus compliance reinforcement (e.g. Phillipe’s little acknowledgement to me, a gentle reminder to the rest of the pile) and enforcement (e.g. warning and if necessary blacklisting persistent offenders). 

Many of us feel that’s not enough. We often hear the plaintive but vacuous “Something ought to be done!”. I suspect things would quickly descend [further] into utter chaos if we stopped doing what we do already, but I’m always willing to listen to new ideas or to refine the approach … so if you have suggestions, let’s talk 'em over and maybe try 'em out. 

* By the way, the DX Code didn’t ‘just happen’ all by itself. It took effort and collaboration by a bunch of experienced hams over a couple of years to draft and refine the code, publish it, and promote it as widely as we could through assorted mail-outs, societies, clubs, reflectors and more. It was something we could do, and so we did. We know it is not the Ultimate Solution. Nevertheless, it is gratifying to see the logo appearing on so many DXpedition, club and individual ham websites: the approach seems to have resonated with the ham community, which I reckon indicates its success. The job’s never done though. Maybe the Code could do with a refresh/update (e.g. covering the issue of remote users operating within the license and correctly identifying themselves, and QSL practices such as charging for LoTW confirmations) and perhaps additional promotion?

Aug 5: the CDXC discussion continues. Today we've been talking about options for handling the rude out-of-turn continuous callers, particularly the selfish, ignorant idiots who try to bully their way into the DX log. Tom GM4FDM said he ignores them for a while in the hope they'll stop but if not he singles them out for a special message: "You have been constantly been calling me for some time. I have asked you to stop. You operating skill is very bad. This is not a QSO and will not be logged. If you keep calling me you will never be in my log." I argued that giving their call means it IS a QSO, but not logging it is a reasonable response. As Tom says, it 'shuts them up, sends a message to other listeners in the pile and, if repeated often enough, gets the word out.'

My pal Roger G3SXW told me about taking umbridge at the Italian bullies, specifically, on one of his DXpeditions, to the point that he decided not to work any more Italians. He chose not to announce his policy: he simply ignored Italian callers, working everyone else in the pile until the only ones left were the Italians, still calling but by now getting desperate ... which was the point really. Their tactics (or rather the antics of the Italian bullies) backfired on them.

The bigger point is that the DX op can and should take charge of the situation, doing something positive about it. (Briefly) explaining or lecturing to both the offender and the rest of the pile is, I feel, an important part of the response, stating explicitly that certain on-air behaviours are simply unacceptable. It validates and supports the behaviour of the ones waiting patiently in the wings.

Sometimes in my little pileups, if the aggravation gets too much, I take a break. Just before I go, I usually send a parting message, something along the lines of “QRT DUE TO EU QRM”. It makes me smile to hear people remaining in the pileup repeating or explaining it to the IQ-zeroes who are still calling me. The message spreads. Job done.

I also call-out bullies in my QSOs by mentioning “SRI QRM FROM ITALY” or whatever, letting the bully know that I hear them just fine but I am refusing to acknowledge them or cave-in and complete a QSO with them. I studiously avoid giving the bully's full callsign, though. I refuse to give them the satisfaction. Occasionally, I’ve had a bully take the hint and shut up, and on rare occasions we may later complete a civil QSO in which a few have been knowh to apologise for causing QRM (albeit usually with some lame excuse) which also makes me smile: that’s a QSL as far as I’m concerned, a successful education and we’re friends again. Tough love you could call it.

Another more assertive approach is to wind-up a persistent bully by deliberately busting his call, and completing a fake, unlogged QSO with the busted call. That usually shuts the bully up too (which is, usually, the primary objective), leaving him unsure whether I have logged him or not. For kicks, I may tell the pile what I am doing, perhaps making valid QSOs in parallel while the bully is still desperately trying to correct me, deliberately doubling with him so he doesn't hear what's going on. It knocks the wind out of his sails anyway, and amuses me and the pile.

Yet another approach is far more common, especially on CW: I simply QSY my receive frequency and narrow the filters to dodge the bully. Again, I may give the new split instructions while the bully is transmitting so he misses out. I may even play the partials/busted callsign game with him, sending the occasional letter or two from his callsign to keep him busy transmitting on his original frequency (right at the edge of my filtering) while simultaneously working the pile somewhere else. The idea is partly to drive him nuts, but mostly to complete more QSOs with The Deserving.

Perhaps that's what they mean when they say DXing is fun! 

Aug 6: when I'm calling a DX station, I’ve had the occasional “helper” – someone in the pile who hears me plaintively calling the DX, and tells the DX I am calling. If they say “LSN ZL” or whatever, that’s fine by me, but I’m not keen on “ZL2IFB CLG”. Worse still are the strong “helpers” who send just my callsign on my behalf: the DX then sends them a report expecting to hear the same strong signal from them, not my puny tiddler of a signal which leads to confusion and delays. In the end, regardless of the outcome, I’m unhappy about the assisted QSO and often unsure whether I was actually logged. I realise the “helpers” mean well but I could do without that kind of help, thank you! 

In contrast this morning Nick ZL1IU spotted Cyril FR4NT calling CQ VK/ZL on 80/SSB. I was struggling to hear Cyril through strong radar QRM but I heard enough to risk a few calls, while simultaneously trying to tune my loop to the top end of the band without tripping the amp. Cyril didn’t hear me, so after a few calls Nick asked me if I wanted him to alert him. Nice of him to offer! I declined and decided to wait a few mins until sunrise in the hope the path would improve but Cyril went QRT about 10 mins before my SR. At the end, Nick said Cyril was ‘coming up to 59’: I’d have given him 35 here, poor copy. That's the difference between a simple wire loop in the trees and a 4-square with over 300 radials!

Aug 11: my hunt for DXCCs on every band this year has slowed to a crawl, almost to a stop. I'm paying the price now for Hoovering-up every scrap of DX earlier in the year, and suffering the usual poor conditions at this time of year. There is a glimmer of hope though: a planned activation of YV0 Aves Island in the Carribbean North of Venezuela in the first week or so of September. It will be an all time new one for me, so I'm planning and preparing for at least one QSO, hopefully. 

First task was to Google for any more information other than the brief announcements on DXnews and DX-world. All Mr Google found for me was a couple of snarky comments about previous trips that didn't come off due (it seems) to lack of permission from the Venezuelan military authorities who evidently control the island. The newly announced trip doesn't appear to have a website as yet, but maybe that's because negotiations are at a delicate stage and the arrangements aren't firm - fair enough. We all witnessed the recent cancellation of a planned DXpedition to P5 due to premature disclosure of the plans (although I picked up more than just a hint of sour grapes from the DXpedition leader who had been refused a P5 visa and - understandably - pulled the rug). Anyway, that's not the end of it.

My next step was to look up propagation predictions for YV0 from ZL in September. Just a few years ago, my first choice would have been VOAcap or another prediction program that claims to model the ionosphere. My experience has been distinctly patchy with those theoretical predictions, so now I go straight to ClubLog. ClubLog shows theoretical predictions too, but I'm much more convinced by the historical records of actual QSOs between the stated end points. Given that there are so few YV0-ZL QSOs in ClubLog (as yet!), it's easy to choose YV or any of the nearby islands in that part of the Southern end of the Carribbean to see both the predictions (in orange) and when ZLs have actually contacted them (in green), in September, on the bands that are most likely to be open to that part of the world today:

The graphs are 'clear-as' (as we Kiwis say), with obvious peaks at 3-4-5-6z on 17-20-30-40m. So guess where I will be loitering come August 31/Sept 1?

And that's still not the last of my prep. This afternoon, I added YV to the DXcluster alerting filters in Logger32, giving me the chance to check out the actual propagation to that part of the world in the run-up to the DXpedition. Maybe there are other openings that are worth exploiting when they come on? We'll see how it turns out over the next 3 weeks or so.

Aug 22: nothing much happening on the air of late. Chasing CY9A and a few YV stations with mixed results so far. Received LoTW confirmations from EP2A. Selling my IC7600 on TradeMe having bought a second K3 instead ... and I need to get going on antenna work and the SO2R setup.

Aug 24: last evening I patiently monitored 80/CW for CY9A from before our sunset and again before their sunrise, plus some of the time inbetween. I don't think I heard anything of them: there was a very weak CW signal on their last-spotted frequency but I think it was just someone sending dahs, perhaps a stuck paddle. This morning, I heard and called them for some while on 30m without success. They were quite weak and busy working Europeans. At lunchtime I noticed a spot on 15m and decided to have a listen. I clicked the spot, turned the beam and heard them quite strong, working someone just at the edge of my CW filter. I spun the transmit VFO in that general direction and clicked the memory button to send my call, once, noticing a high SWR on the little 2 ele beam hence about 500 watts out of the amp instead of the usual 800 or so. Imagine my surprise when they came straight back with my complete call and a report. In just a few seconds later we completed a QSO  :-)

This evening, I spent some time on 80/CW at dusk as usual, with breaks to feed two lambs and cook dinner. No sign of CY9A - I guess they were sleeping. After dinner, I checked the cluster and tuned around the bottom of 80, still nothing so I decided to watch TV ... but I left the rig and amp running just in case. In front of the TV, I called up DXsummit.fi on a laptop to keep an eye on 80, and a few minutes later there they were: CY9A spotted on 3523 listening up 1. I nipped into the shack, tuned to 3523 and listened. I heard "CQ CY9A CY9A" at a reasonable strength, but there was no "UP" so I made a snap decision, clicked a button triggering a +1 split macro, and sent my call once. I heard another ZL calling but they came straight back to me with "ZL2IFB 5NN". I sent them 5NN and logged the QSO.  Thanks very much. Job done! That's DXCC #220 on 80.