Winter Vacation 2011 – Part 1

Last year we had to cancel out ‘Big Trip‘ to Australia for medical reasons.  So we decided that this winter we would go on a simpler vacation to someplace warm as a sort of a test run to see how well I can manage traveling now.

We chose another WindStar cruise as we had enjoyed them in the past and knew they would do things right.  We chose the cruise on the Wind Spirit from St. Martin which visited  Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Jost van Dyke, St. Kitts, and St. Barths.

Of course it was winter in the mid-west and the weather did its best to spoil our plans.  We were scheduled to fly out on February 4 and a huge storm hit on Wednesday, the 2nd!  Our route was through Chicago O’Hare which was shut down by 2 feet of snow and high winds.  We looked for alternatives and kept hoping that things would be back to normal by Friday.  The short version–our plane left Cedar Rapids two hours late on Friday and we just made our connection in Chicago.  In Miami we had another tight connection but managed to get on the plane to St. Martin with some time to spare.  After we were in the air we both sighed with relief and had a couple glasses of wine.

It was late when we arrived on St. Martin so we did not see much of the island that night.  We were not scheduled to board the ship until after noon on the next day so we had time that morning to explore the area around our hotel – The Hotel Beach Plaza.  It was a beautiful area and the hotel appeared very nice.  Unfortunately it was, in our opinion, rather poorly run with poor service and no information about the services available.

Around 1:00 pm we were picked up from the hotel and taken to the ship.  Check in on board went smoothly and we soon settled in by the pool for the buffet while waiting for other passengers to arrive.

More to follow.

My Favorite Windows Software

This is a more-or-less straightforward list of software I use on Windows and, briefly, why.  From this list you can see I generally find something that I like and keep using it.  I’m also a big fan of free software.

  1. Firefox web browser.  I like it because it’s not IE, because it is free, and because it is customizable with a large number of plugins to do nearly anything you want.  For example, I use a plug-in called Style Sheet Chooser Plus.  That allows me to revert to simple formatting when some web designer does something ‘artistic’ and unreadable on their page.
  2. Forte Agent for e-mail and newsgroups.  It’s simple and above all, supports plain text email which is frugal of bandwidth and much safer than HTML email.  I must say that I use an older version as this program has suffered from creeping elegance in later versions.
  3. Media Player Classic for playing video and some types of streaming audio.  Again it is simple and it is free.  Not bloated like Windows Media Player is now.
  4. Open Office For word processing, spreadsheets, presentations and everything else that MicroSoft Office does, only it is free and open source. It can read most Office file formats and can produce files that are compatible with Office.  No need to pay the Micro$oft tax to do normal office work.

New Truck

When I retired in 1998 I bought a new Nissan pickup truck.  It’s been a faithful machine and done a lot of jobs for both Jan and myself.  But 12 years is a long time for a truck that is subject to Iowa winters with road salt and grime not to mention the wear and tear that comes from living on a gravel road.

So, we decided to replace the old truck, but it had served us so well that we decided to get something as close to it as possible.  It turns out that, like many things, motor vehicles are subject to “creeping elegance.”   Larger engines, more bells and whistles and overall gentrification.  What we finally settled on was another Nissan Frontier king cab 4×4 with manual transmission (I don’t drive automatic transmissions, but that is another post.)

The differences between the old and the new were fairly significant.  The new has a 6cyl engine while the old one was a 4 and as a consequence the gas mileage will be slightly lower.  The old one had a 5-speed transmission while the new one is a 6-speed.  The old one had manual hubs while the new has automatic hubs.  Overall the new truck is a little bigger and a little roomier that the old.

Below is the old truck:

While here is the new one:

Not that big of a difference from the outside, other than lacking the decals (which I never liked).  Inside there are more changes.  One of them that will cause me a little extra work is that there are fewer good places to mount my radios in the new truck.  I think I have that figured out but, until I actually do it, I am not certain.

I’ll add a follow-up when I’ve installed the radios and gotten a little more used to the new truck.

QSL Cards

In this post I try to explain another aspect of Amateur Radio for my non-ham readers.  One interesting part of Amateur Radio is the practice of exchanging QSL cards to verify an over the air communication.  QSL cards are postcards containing the details of the contact such as date, time (UTC), signal strength (RST) and call letters.  Some cards are extremely ornate while other hams (like me) opt for plainer and less expensive cards.  Here is what my personal card looks like.

One of the reasons the practice of sending QSL cards thrives is that many radio awards require proof that the applicant has actually contacted the station they claim to have communicated with.   There are numerous ways to exchange QSL cards.  The most common ways are by direct mail to the address of the station worked or to a QSL manager for that station.  Clearly this could get rather expensive in terms of outgoing and return postage.   To help with this cost there are QSL Bureaus where a ham can send cards in bulk to a central outgoing bureau in their home country.  That bureau then collects and sends them on to the corresponding incoming bureau in the destination country.  There they are then distributed to the individual ham operators.  This process can save considerably on postage costs but the downside is that the whole process can take a year or more before receiving the desired card back.

Here is an example of some of the QSL cards I have received from various places. (Click on the thumbnail to see a larger version).  Over the years I have collected thousands of cards from all over the world.  In fact filing and storage gets to be a bit of a problem.   I often enter radio contests and I can get a large number of incoming cards a few months after the contest.

Surprise (& Explanation)

This may turn out to be a long and disjointed post so be forewarned.

At this time (mid-September 2010) Jan and I should have been well into our visit to Australia.  I’ve always, since I was a teen, wanted to go there and when we learned the 2010 Worldcon was to be held in Melbourne, we decided that we would go whole-hog and attend the convention, and then tour Australia.  All plans were made well in advance and we were set to go.

Then Real Life™ intervened.   In April I learned that my lymphoma had returned and I began another course of chemotherapy.   The conclusion of that process was a round of high-dose chemo followed by a bone marrow transplant.  Needless to say, the Australia trip had to be canceled.

Countless friends provided tremendous support both for myself and Jan during all of this. I received  cards from all over and even more emails with good wishes and encouragement.  On August 10th I was able to return home after 28 days in the hospital.  Even after coming home, my friends continued to provide support and encouragement.

In particular members of the  on-line community,, were a constant source of support.  A number of them are part of an organization called The SFWA Musketeers which I have been involved with for a number of years.  I have worked as an ‘Auxiliaryand assisted them in their charity fund-raising activities at various SF conventions.

All this is a way of explaining the wonderful gift I received in today’s mail.  To help cheer me up and partially make up for the missed Australia trip, they sent me this:

For those of you not in on the scheme, it was a plush toy Platypus (Mortimer Gervias Platypus) who is dressed in a costume like those the SFWA Musketeers wear for their performances.  In addition  it came with an extra special bonus, a one-of-a-kind booklet, “The Platypus Diaries“, which explains how Mortimer came to Iowa.

Needless to say, I’ve been grinning from ear to ear since this arrived and I’m looking for the perfect place to display this treasure.

So first let me thank everyone who was thinking about me through my recent ‘adventure.’  I can’t say it enough, but all the cards, emails and even phone calls helped me get through everything with a positive attitude.  And special thanks to those who were responsible for Mortimer.  You know who you are!

Police Reports

I have a friend who lives in Bozeman Montana and every once in a while she sends me clippings from the Police Reports section of their local paper, The Bozeman Daily Chronicle.  Why, you ask?  Well these reports can be strangely unusual, hilariously funny or just plain offbeat.  Who ever selects and writes these items has to have a lot of fun doing it.

Here is a typical selection of items from the latest batch my friend sent.  There are also some annotations by her which may or may not be legible in the scan.  You’ll need to click on the image to get an readable enlarged version. Enjoy.

Antenna Transplant – part II

Got the new antenna working yesterday.  There were a few problems with the cables to sort out but that only took a short time.  Then there were several repetitions of RTFM before I finally figured out how to configure the control box.

Turns out that I had to enable the option for 80M in order for any band to work.  The instruction book did not even hint at this.  SteppIR needs some help writing their manuals.

Once it was all working I made contact with stations in Greece and Italy.  Not major DX but pretty good for early afternoon.   At least it proves the antenna is working.  I’ll be playing with it some more today and get a better feeling for its performance.

Antenna Transplant

Warning – Ham Radio Geek-Speak Ahead!

For quite a few years I’ve used a Hy-Gain DX-88 antenna when operating on the 80, 40 and 30 meter amateur bands (3.5, 7 and 10.1 MHz).  It’s been a very good antenna but suffers from one major problem – it has a very narrow bandwidth, particularly on 80 meters.

If I set it up for 3.55 MHz, the CW (code) portion of the band, then it will not work well at 3.85 MHz in the voice section of the band and vice versa.  The adjustments necessary to change the frequency are rather complex and the antenna is over 250 feet from the house.  I have to have a very good reason to change things and in bad weather it is not worth the trouble to make adjustments.

A few months ago I started looking around for a replacement antenna that didn’t suffer from these bandwidth limitations.  Finally I settled on the SteppIR BigIR vertical.  This antenna is unique in that instead of being a fixed length it adjusts its electrical length based on the operating frequency chosen.  This means that changing frequencies is as simple as pushing a button.  In fact, for many brands of radios the frequency change will automatically track the frequency the radio is tuned to.

Assembly of the antenna is fairly complicated and the installation requires additional cables to control the antenna.  In my stetup I have a 2″ diameter , 250′ long polyethylene pipe buried between the antenna site and my ham shack.  I (with Jan’s help) had to pull the new cable through this pipe.  This posed some difficulty due to tangles, stuck wires and an error in where to route the cable in the maze of other wires for other antennas.  Who ever called radio “wireless” has never seen a ham radio installation!

The next step was to take down the old DX-88.  This wasn’t too difficult as it only weighs about 18.5 pounds but, as it is 28 feet long, it is a bid awkward to handle.  Unfortunately, I have no pictures of this operation as there was no one available to take pictures while we worked on it.

With the old antenna down it was time to put the new one up.  This had the same problems of awkwardness made a little worse by an extra 5 feet of length.  Again, no pictures were taken of the ongoing process for lack of photographer but there are before and after shots.  Installing the new antenna went smoothly and it only took a short while to get the guy ropes adjusted and tightened up.

All that is left to do now is to check out all the cabling to be sure all is wired correctly.  After that I will start on-the-air checks and see how it works.  I’ll make an addition to this post once all that is complete.