Another New Toy

Anyone who knows me has to realize that I love my toys.  Well, yesterday I got another one.

It’s an Icom IC-T90A, tri-band band handheld radio.  It puts out up to 5 watts on the 6m, 2m, and 70cm ham bands.  It has a general coverage receiver from 495 KHz to 999.99 MHz (minus cell phone frequencies.)  Full specs can be found here.

I am just starting to learn how to operate it but already I know I really like it.  It has (IMHO) only one drawback.  The antenna is way huge!  The antenna performs well but is a little awkward to carry on a belt clip or in a pocket.  Fortunately there are after-market antennas which are more reasonably sized available for a low cost.

I’ve already got all the local repeater frequencies programmed into it and I’ll be taking it with me often to see what sort of coverage I get in the area.

Such fun!

A Week In Radio + Contesting

For those not too familiar with the hobby of Amateur Radio I thought I would do a post about what I’ve done on the air for the last week.

In the table below are some of the stations I’ve contacted in the first week in February, 2010.  Under ‘Mode’,  CW means Morse code while USB (or LSB) means voice.  The ‘Prefix’ column is the standard way that hams designate a particular country.  I’ve linked the less familiar locations to their Wikipedia article in case anyone is curious.

Date     Call    Freq(MHz) Mode Prefix Location
02/01/10 TX3D       10.11  CW   FO/A   Austral Islands
02/01/10 KE7NCO     18.15  USB  W      Nevada
02/01/10 ZD8RH      18.07  CW   ZD8    Ascension Island
02/01/10 OH1VR/VP9  21.27  USB  VP9    Bermuda
02/03/10 6W/PA3EWP  18.09  CW   6W     Senegal
02/04/10 E51WWB     14.02  CW   E5/N   North Cook Islands
02/04/10 V31YN/P    18.09  CW   V3     Belize
02/05/10 5X1NH      18.08  CW   5X     Uganda
02/05/10 EI7JN      18.14  USB  EI     Ireland
02/05/10 TL0A       18.16  USB  TL     Central African Republic
02/05/10 EA9PY      18.08  CW   EA9    Ceuta/Melilla
02/05/10 5N7M       14.01  CW   5N     Nigeria
02/05/10 J6/N7UN    21.03  CW   J6     St. Lucia
02/05/10 K7SFN      18.12  USB  W      Nevada
02/05/10 CO8LY      18.07  CW   CO     Cuba
02/05/10 E51WWB     18.07  CW   E5/N   North Cook Islands
02/05/10 ZL4PW      18.07  CW   ZL     New Zealand
02/05/10 VK7SM      18.08  CW   VK     Australia (Tasmania)

On a daily basis, I’m not extremely active compared to some hams and the radio propagation has not been the best lately (though it is improving.)  In a couple of weeks there will be a contest and, with luck and effort I may contact several hundred stations, all over the world, in a single weekend.

Although it doesn’t seem that it should be difficult, contesting can be quite taxing.  Imagine sitting in front of a radio for many hours listening to signals from all over the world and trying to sort them out from one another.  Add in various kinds of noise and interference to make the task harder.   You  need to accurately log the call sign, time and other details for every contact, avoid ‘dups‘ (working the same station twice) and checking for changing conditions on 5 or 6 different frequency bands.   When I was younger I would go for a whole contest weekend with 4  hours or less of sleep a night.  I’m not sure if I have that stamina now but I’ll give it my best try.

Why? Well, for the personal challenge mostly.  It’s a way to test your equipment and improve your operating skills.  There is also the fact that scores are published and you can compare your performance with other amateurs.  Finally, there are awards for the top scorers in their category.  Here is a certificate I won 20 years ago and  I haven’t done that well since.  But I keep trying.

Agadir (part 2)

The drive to Taroudant was less hectic than that from Agadir.  We went through rural areas with farms and fields.  We also went through large areas of  Argan  trees (argania spinosa) which grow well in the  harsh environment, surviving heat, drought and poor soil.  These trees are often seen in pictures of the famous “Tree climbing goats” who climb up to eat the higher leaves.  We didn’t see any goats in the trees, at least not close enough to the road to get a photo from the moving bus.

TaroudantTaroudant is a walled city with ramparts about 6 km long.  It was first settled in 1056 and the walls were built in the 16th century.  Today it is known as a market town and our main purpose for going there was to visit its souk.

SpiceSoukBecause of the approaching Muslim holiday the town was busy, especially the souk.  Every kind of goods were available there.  Clothing, leather goods, food, Click to Enlargespices and shoes to name a few.  We visited a shop where cosmetics and medicinal substances were made from the fruits of the Argan tree.  Women there grind the seeds on stone mills and extract the oil which is ArganOilused for all sorts of products. (Excuse the not very good picture on the right.  I didn’t want to use a flash).

We decided to buy a souvenir at one of the shops in the souk and we had been cautioned that the merchants expect to bargain over the price.  That was quite an adventure.  Eventually we managed to get what we wanted for only 1/3 of originally quoted price.  I’m still not sure if this was a good deal but it was an interesting process.

We left the souk around 4 pm and it was starting to get very busy.  In fact the guide had to enlist the help of several others to make sure our group kept together so no one got lost in the narrow, twisting side streets.  We learned later that many people believe they can get the best bargains toward the end of the day when the merchants are tired and ready to go home.

PalaisSalamBefore returning to Agadir we visited the Hotel Palais Salam for refreshments.  Jan and I tried the national drink, Mint Tea.  Very good but quite sweet.  The Hotel was beautiful though it appeared to not have many guests at that time.

Our return to Agadir was rather thrilling.  Incredible traffic with cars, trucks, motorbikes and bicycles everywhere.  The school children sometimes attend school 15 km or more from their homes and ride bikes back and forth.  The bikes have no reflectors or lights and there are no bike lanes on the narrow roads.  Then back in Agadir we encountered a terrific traffic jam.  Some of the most aggressive driving I have ever seen.  We were almost 1 hour late returning to the ship but they waited for us. 😉

That evening they had a fabulous barbecue on the ship with lobster, a whole roast pig, lamb, beef, chicken and more other food than I can describe.   After dinner we went to the lounge where the performer was doing a “TV Theme Song Trivia” contest.  Our team won the first round and a bottle of champagne.  Of course, with eight team members the bottle didn’t go too far.

Agadir (part 1)

(I’m splitting this post into two parts because if was becoming much too lengthy.)

It took nearly 24 hours for the Wind Spirit to get to Agadir, Morroco from Lanzarote.  During that segment of the trip the sea got rather rough with swells to 15 ft.  The ship does have stabilizers but they didn’t eliminate the motion entirely.  Luckily neither Jan nor I suffer from sea sickness though this was enough to make walking on deck a little difficult.

At around noon the next day we approached Agadir, a city of around 700,000 including the surrounding areas.  The first thing we saw was the old kasbah on the hill.AgadirKasbah The arabic words on the hillside say (roughly) “One land, one god, one king”  The city of Agadir, including the kasbah, was destroyed in a massive earthquake in 1960.  The new city was rebuilt about 3 km from the site of the old one.

One of the first things we noticed when we approached the dock at Agadir – Trash!  The water was filled with paper, plastic bags, bottles and other unidentifiable junk.  Very different from what we saw in the Canary Islands.  I don’t know why this was but I did notice an absence of things like dumpsters, garbage cans throughout the city.

After lunch on-board we left for a tour of an orange farm and the nearby town of Taroudant.  It took us over an hour by bus to reach the farm and we got to see good examples of the Moroccan countryside.  Traffic was heavy and drivers seemed to all be Gran Prix wanabees.  This was a day or two prior to a Muslim holiday which required the sacrifice of a sheep or goat.  As a consequence along our drive we saw several markets or souks where animals were for sale.  It appeared everyone was buying and we saw people with sheep in their cars and even one fellow with a live sheep strapped to the back of his motorbike!FarmFlowers

The orange farm was a beautiful place out in what was nearly desert.  They grow several types of oranges along with bananas and many ornamental Click to enlargeplants.  Everything was grown using a drip irrigation system which conserved water.  This system was encouraged by the government through subsidies.  The bananas were grown inside ‘greenhouses’ which were used to provide a higherBananas humidity environment rather than for temperature control.

One thing that Jan was disappointed with in our trip to Morocco was not being able to ride a camel.  There was one tour offered which consisted of a 3 Camelhour camel ride but we thought that might be a little too much for softies like us.  At least, at the orange farm she did get to see a camel up close, along with many other animals including some beautiful Arabian horses.

The orange farm is adding a hotel for tourists which will be called Oranges Farm Hotel and will include all the amenities such as swimming pool and elegant dining.

After refreshments at the farm we left for the town of Taroudant also called The Grandmother of Marrakech because of its similarity to that city.


Even though they did not raise the sails when we left for Lanzarote, weClick to enlarge did have another beautiful sight that evening.  The moon and Jupiter were well placed in the sky and made quite a show.

Lanzarote is a volcanic island with a long history.  It was first settled by the Phoenicians in 1100BC and the Greeks, Romans and Egyptians were all familiar with it.

We only had a short stopover in Arrecife, the capital, and the only tour offered Click to enlargewas billed as Very Strenuous.  We opted instead to tour the city and explorer the area around the port.  The shopping area was nothing particularly exciting but we did see some interesting sites.    This sight intrigued us but were unable (with our limited command of Spanish) to find out exactly what it was.  As best we could determine it was some sort of park or resort out on a small island connected to the main island via a causeway.

Click to enlargeAnother feature of the port was Castillo de San Gabriel which was built in 1573 as a defense against pirates.  This was, to me, a very different from other castles we have visited, being quite low and rather small.  I was also a bit disappointed with the cannonsCastleSanGabriel2 on display as they were clearly more modern (breach-loaders) than the castle itself.   The small island where the castle was located was connected to the main island by a drawbridge built sometime later.

DolphinOur next destination was Agadir Morocco and we sailed from Lanzarote shortly after noon on 11/23.  Along the way that afternoon we were joined by a group of dolphins who played in the wake of the ship.  I found them rather hard to photograph but did manage one good image.

Las Palmas

Click to enlargeWe arrived at Las Palmas on Gran Canaria Island  at 8am the next morning  Las Palmas is the capital of the Canary Islands (alternating with Santa Cruz.)

We had an early breakfast as we were scheduled for a “Panoramic Tour” of the island starting at 8:30.  That tour took us on  some of the narrowest, steepest and most twisty roads I have ever seen.  Click to enlargeThe bus took us up to a point overlooking the “Crater of Bandam”, a volcanic caldera that was left from an eruption 5000 years ago.

Then we visited a town called Teror – the guide had to tell us how the people living there were known as Click to enlarge“Terorists.”   It was Sunday so they were performing mass in Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pino. Because of that we only saw it from the outside.  At the same time there was the weekly market going on in the streets around the Basilica.  We wandered around there seeing everything for sale from cotton candy and roast chestnuts  to Click to enlargeclothing and jewelry. We also sampled a local product – Honey Rum.  Quite good though  very sweet – a small amount was enough.

Next we went on to Arucas which is in an area of banana farms and famous for Click to enlargeThe Church of San Juan Bautista.  An impressive structure built from local stone with many intricate carvings.  Construction was begun in 1909 and only finished recently.  Again, mass was being conducted so we did not go inside.

Finally we returned to Las Palmas but before going to the ship we stopped by the marina to see the start of a huge yacht race.  This race starts in Las Palmas and ends up at St. Lucia in Click to enlargethe Caribbean.  We were told that there were 250 boats starting out that day (11/22) and that they would cover the 2700 nautical miles in about 3 weeks.

We returned to the ship just in time for a late lunch and spent the remainder of the day lounging by the pool and getting to know more of our fellow passengers.  We sailed for Lanzarote at 7pm and once again, because of weather conditions, they did not raise the sails. 🙁

USA to Spain

Jan and I are just back from a cruise to the Canary Islands, Morocco and Portugal.  This is the first of a number of posts about our trip.

From home (Iowa) we first flew to Chicago, pleasantly at a sane time of day.  No problems and enough layover  at O’Hare to allow us to have lunch.  Our flight to Madrid  left on time and there were no problems there either.  At Madrid, going through customs was a snap.  I wish things were that easy in the US.  The only difficulty was a long wait before our next flight to Tenerife.  Luckily we were able to spend the time in the comfortable Air Iberia VIP lounge.

The flight to Tenerife was a little late and the situation was complicated because the gate attendant only made announcements in Spanish.  Eventually we got on board and took off.  We had a nice lunch/dinner and the flight was just a couple of hours long.  While waiting for our luggage at the Tenerife airport we met some others who were going on the same cruise.

We were met by a cheerful cab driver who took us to the hotel and we settled in HotelBotanicorather quickly.  Had a great meal in the Thai restaurant right in the hotel.  We were not leaving for the ship until around noon the next day so we could sleep late and partially make up for our jet-lag.  The hotel was the Botanica, very nice with fabulous BotanicoGroundsgrounds including a small golf course, ponds with koi,  statues, fountains and beautiful flowers.

The process of boarding the ship was much improved over our previous cruises with WindStar.  Less paperwork and better organized.  It also helped that the ship was only half full Cabin(84 passengers of the maximum 148).  We settled into our cabin without a lot of trouble and went up Click for larger imagepool-side where they had buffet lunch set out for those on board while we waited to sail at 11pm.

We had dinner that evening with a couple of other passengers, two women from the UK.  They were traveling together, leaving Riggingtheir husbands behind to fend for themselves for the week.  After that we went up on deck and waited for the sailing.  When they raise the sails they always play the theme from “Chariots of Fire” by Vangelis.  At night it is particularly moving as they have the sails lighted and the ship really stands out in the dark.  Unfortunately the  weather did not cooperate and they did not raise the sails that evening.

Net Neutrality

I suppose that anyone who finds there way here has at least a basic understanding of the concept of Net Neutrality. If you don’t, the short definition is “All data on the Internet should be treated impartially, regardless of what its purpose is.”

Recently the FCC has proposed rules that would codify this principle.  This has set off a storm among the big ISP’s, telecom providers and various other organizations that want to control the internet to maximize their profits.

Senator John McCain has introduced a Senate bill, S 1836 (Cynically named The Internet Freedom Act of 2009) , which would block the FCC from implementing its proposed rules.  A similar bill, HR 3924 (Real Stimulus Act of 2009), was introduced in the House.

Both of these bills would result in large ISPs being able to block or slow down various kinds of Internet traffic for what ever reasons they choose.  If you value the Internet, you don’t want either of these bills to pass!

I urge everyone to write or call their Senators and Representative and ask them to oppose these bills.

In addition, you should request that your Representative support the House bill HR 3458 who’s purpose is: “To amend the Communications Act of 1934 to establish a national broadband policy, safeguard consumer rights, spur investment and innovation….”

The more letters, phone calls or emails they get, the more likely it will be that we can preserve a free and open Internet.  Do it today.

Ham Radio Activities

Lately I’ve been getting more involved with ham radio.  This is due to 1) getting a fancy new radio, Station and 2) Getting my major antennas working once more.Pro57
I split my ham radio time primarily between two activities; DXing, which is trying to contact stations in distant locations, and Contesting, which is, as the name implies, a competitive activity where the object is to contact as many different stations in a predefined period of time as is possible.
I’ll talk about Contesting another time but now I’d like to go into a little more detail about DXing.  The American Radio Relay League offers an award called the DXCC (DX Century Club) which is, at its lowest level, given for making radio contact with stations in 100 different “countries.”  Currently the ARRL defines 338 ‘entities’ as countries for the purpose of the award.
At the present time I have worked and confirmed (via QSL ) cards, 299 of the possible 338.  Below is my map with red map tacks marking the places I’ve worked.

Click for Larger View

There are a number of reasons why I have not contacted all the 338.  For some it is because the political situation makes ham radio there difficult or impossible.  For example North Korea and Palestine.  Others are so remote that there are no ham operators there normally and they only become active when someone mounts a DXpedition to temporarily provide the opportunity of radio contact Examples of these are Swains Is. or Tristan da Cunah.

Some places are so rare that, when one does come up on the air, thousands of radio operators around the world all try to contact them, all at once.  This can sound like bedlam with everyone competing to be heard.  But there is a magical thrill when the DX station picks your call letters out of the “pile-up” and responds to you.  It is not all luck, but a combination of operating skill, station quality and radio propagation conditions.

It’s a crazy hobby but not without its satisfactions.