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The Obligatory First Catchup Post

As is often the case, when I (or most people, I suspect) start a blog on a subject, it’s something they were already doing and suddenly decided that blogging about it might be fun, or even helpful. What follows is the story thus far….

My home networks since the inception of the common use of post-dialup internet have generally been the minimalist one or two hardwired PCs connected to whatever switch/router combo the internet provider offered. That was plenty at the time. When we moved to our current house in a largely rural neighborhood in late 2010, it coincided with both a desire to execute some home automation and the proliferation of more smart devices, more phones, more laptops, more tablets, more TVs.

The only internet providers available at the time were DSL from the ILEC CenturyLink and the usual suspects for conventional satellite internet, like HughesNet and Viasat. There may be others <shrug>. CenturyLink DSL was adequate for general internet and was also reasonably stable, though there were a few outages during the years we had it.

When I started this post, I had intended to tell the whole story of the network and home automation, because there is a fair bit of crossover between them, but now it occurs to me that one massive blog entry is going to be hard to absorb and enjoy and it’s already too long, so I am going to to split them into two related categories, Home Automation, which I started a freakin’ decade ago and I suppose this one will just be about the network in general.

What follows is roughly in chronological order, but not necessarily strictly so.

The router that came with our DSL service was a decent one, I suppose. I think the first one was a Westell and at some point, they replaced it with a ZyXel. Eventually, I wanted more control, so I bought a Belkin router to put behind it, or maybe the Belkin had a phone jack for DSL? Purchased from BestBuy, if I remember right. The Belkin had 5GHz Wi-Fi, which helped with some devices. The factory Wi-Fi password for this router was a decent one, easy enough to remember, so I’ve kept it a couple of routers later. I also eventually got a Belkin Wi-Fi extender. All the network gear is in a bedroom at the corner of the house and sometimes the signal was a bit weak in the kitchen at the opposite corner of the house, but importantly, where we spend much of our time.

The Wi-Fi extender was not enough to provide decent coverage in the workshop. The shop is roughly 100 feet from the house and it is even near the corner bedroom where the Wi-Fi is located, but the signal was still weak.

With the exception of these two BestBuy purchases, from here on out when I mention ordering something, it is pretty safe to assume I probably ordered it via Amazon. If I didn’t and its important, I’ll comment to the effect.

Anyway, based on some experiences with point to point links between buildings at work, in late 2013, I got a set of EnGenius ENH500 outdoor access bridges. This was an extremely simple and robust system that lasted nine years, through power failures, thunderstorms, ice in winter and Texas sun in summer. They were just never the problem. Since BestBuy was handy, I also got a little Belkin 8 port switch and that was plenty to support a PC and some radio gear in the shop.

Cheaping out on Wi-Fi for the workshop *was* a problem. I had a surplus Cisco WAP that seemed to be a good unit. It had 5GHz Wi-Fi, three antennas for signal diversity and a good reputation otherwise. Mine however, had a tendency to go to sleep. Rebooting it would bring it back, but it would just freeze and stop working again later. I basically dealt with it because the only thing I really needed Wi-Fi for was my phone when I was out there.

If I recall correctly, the CenturyLink DSL was spec’d out at 7.5Mbps download and 2.5Mbps upload. It never met those exactly, but for most of the time we had it, it was pretty solid for 5M down and 2M up. I had little need to work from home then and when I did, it was almost always consoling into a Linux server or some switches and routers, so it was almost all text.

Eventually, however, DSL service began to degrade. I could turn in a ticket and the tech would reset something or replace some card in the DSLAM and get it kinda back up, but after a couple more years, it became a case where dialup internet would have been only a little slower and probably more reliable. I think CenturyLink just didn’t want to invest in upgrading the infrastructure for a handful of houses in a rural neighborhood. There were no new customers to be had.

Terrestrial wireless internet began to look appealing. I don’t remember if we had more than one provider come out, but we did eventually get wireless internet from OneSource in November of 2017.

The installation was what I would classify as marginal. The LTE modem was put on the roof of the house, but at the minimum viable height, just barely shooting over an outbuilding next to the house. Even so, it worked great, 10M/2M as promised and pretty reliable and troublefree except when the growing season was in full tilt and the trees were in full foliage.

One particularly verdant season, it was affected more than usual, but coincidentally, they were upgrading equipment on the tower, which was to require changing the equipment at the house.

The tech that came out put the new modem on a tall roof mount at the peak of the roof, where it gained 8 or 10 feet of altitude. The new equipment was also good for 25M/5M, so I signed up for the upgrade.

I also befriended that tech, which is good not only because he’s a cool guy to hang out with, but it also allowed us both to benefit from my willingness to experiment and help him by testing stuff. It also helps that I’m not Joe User when it comes to this stuff and can converse with him intelligently about issues. And blacksmithing. And firearms.

Somewhere in here, a coworker who had just changed out his whole home network to Ubiquiti gave me a Cisco SG200-26P that he no longer needed. It would sit unused for a while, but would one day become very important. πŸ™‚

OneSource has rocked along since then pretty solid. The old equipment on their tower could only go as high as 10Mbps, but the tower antenna was basically pointed south southeast and we are pretty much due southeast of the tower, so we enjoyed a strong signal, even though the antenna on our end was barely over the roof of the craft shack. The new equipment has higher capacity, but the antennas are pointed due north, south and east, putting us in a comparatively weak crossing of the south and east antennas. Our modem will connect to either. I forget which is which, but connected to one, we get the full 25Mbps, but it’s not as stable and reliable, dropping out occasionally. On the other, we get 10-15Mbps, but it’s more solid. I tend to stay on the solid side because….

Now I work from home almost exclusively. Long story short, my company moved headquarters from near downtown Fort Worth, which is a nice 35-45 minutes drive to Addison, which is a solid hour to 90 minutes in the morning and longer to get home if you don’t leave either well before 4PM or after 6PM. We had negotiated being able to work from home for a number of days, and I often used my “work from home” days to work from the old Fort Worth office on certain days because I had pistol matches in or near Fort Worth, so that was even closer than working from home.

Then came the unspecified virus of unknown origin. <cue dramatic orchestra hit>

Suddenly, working from home was pretty much the only option and 2M upload that wasn’t always 2M was just barely enough. I could join conference calls, but I was the only one without a camera on.

Oh, and then I broke my shoulder and had total shoulder joint replacement surgery, but the virus was a bigger issue.

During this time, my company was in the process of changing to RingCentral telephones and since my gig with the company is the phones, that Cisco SG200 switch mentioned above came in handy as 12 of its 26 port provide PoE and it has a 100W power budget. I could connect all the phones I needed for conducting labs and configuration testing and all the stuff one might otherwise normally do at the office.

When I first heard about Starlink (I am, among other things, a bit of a space nerd) I signed up to be notified when service was going to be in my area. Shortly, I received notice that they had a Beta program wherein one could pay a $99 deposit and end up on a list of possible beta testers in an area. I did that in February of 2021 and tracked the news, but otherwise went on with my life.

In a move to improve Wi-Fi coverage in the house, in June of 2021, I decided to upgrade the old Belkin router. It had no external antennas, so I chose a TP-Link unit with an array of them, hoping to maximize RF flux in the house. I also put the freshly liberated Belkin router out in the workshop as a simple access point and finally had reliable Wi-Fi out there.

I was pretty impressed with the features and benefits of the TP-Link router, including their mesh products. Combined with this router, I could backhaul ethernet to the workshop and have another TP-Link access point out there and they could be the same SSID! No more having to connect to the workshop Wi-Fi out there and reconnect to the house back here. So, by July, I ordered a 2nd TP-Link router of the same model.

Well, it turns out that the router product apparently can’t do the ethernet backhaul *as an access point*. It can be the controller and any of several models of mesh capable access points could backhaul to it over ethernet and use the same SSID, but not two of this model back to back. Poo. Rather than return it, I still deployed it as an access point, but now I renamed the networks HippyHollow for the house and FlyingDog for the workshop, though I still kept the password that my family already knows.

October got busy, partly because Starlink’s delivery estimate narrowed down somewhat to “Late 2021”, so I started tweaking my infrastructure to accommodate what I hoped would be delivery soon. Having studied some of the requirements for Starlink, I knew that the same trees in our back yard that caused us to install the OneSource modem on the far west end of the house would never work with Starlink’s dishy, so I formulated a plan to install the dish, once received, on the roof of the workshop because there are no trees over there. I would then use a VLAN to backhaul it over the point to point bridge to the house and plug it into the router. To that end, I ordered a couple of TP-Link switches with VLAN features. For a $20-30 switch, these are pretty nice units.

Around this time, I saw a Network Chuck video extoling the benefits of the pfSense firewall/router. It occurred to me that having a router with multiple WAN ports could allow me to, at least for a time, keep and use OneSource even after Starlink is in place and my TP-Link router had only one WAN port. So, early in October, I ordered a Netgate 1100 appliance with pfSense+ preinstalled. Sadly, it would be mid November before I could get it deployed, coincidentally while my wife was away on a cruise. That way, if I got stuck on something and killed our internet, she wouldn’t have to suffer, and thus, neither would I. πŸ™‚

The wizard in pfSense works pretty well and getting the router up was easy. It was also easy to break the config enough that it stopped all traffic. It was then also easy to reset it to factory and set it all back up again, having learned my lesson. πŸ™‚ I reconfigured the TP-Link router as a simple access point, like the one in the workshop and kept it in place.

It was around here that I had ordered something that required a signature on delivery. The FedEx guy kept coming to the door while I was home and apparently knocking with a feather so that not even the dogs could hear it and leaving notices that they were about to return my thing to the sender. I called in and probably completely irritated someone that day, but eventually we met up at my door and I got my stuff. The whole experience inspired me to install a doorbell camera, partly to be able to collect evidence, but also because when there is an obvious camera, people tend to act differently, in this case, hopefully try harder to complete a delivery.

Cameras are largely considered to be in the home automation segment, but most of the story of mine is pretty network centric, so I have overlapping parts of the story in both blogs.

Because I knew I would still be upload limited for a while, I wanted to avoid anything that was dependent on the cloud (you know, what we used to call servers, but are now just someone else’s servers), so Ring was right out. I dug around and found that Amcrest had decent products and while <buzzword> cloud </buzzword> (and don’t even get me started on the people who now call conventional servers the “private cloud”) was an option, it was not required; they could record to a local SD card and they could be administered locally. I ordered an Amcrest AD110 doorbell camera and two other cameras suitable for watching our driveway and watching the horses in the barn.

They were pretty easy to connect. The barn camera would have to wait a while, but the doorbell connects to the existing doorbell wiring for power and has some kind of terminator adapter thingy that connects across the existing chime in order to operate it. The camera appeared to come up mostly, but would never successfully connect to the network. A bit of Googling revealed that it requires at least a 16V doorbell transformer in order for Wi-Fi to operate correctly and sure enough, mine was only 10V. Quick trip to Lowes and a quick trip to the attic to swap that out and it came up beautifully. Literally a couple of days later, I am working at my desk and the doorbell motion detector goes of. It turns out to be that the horses got out!

If I am being completely honest, the AD110 does require the largely cloud-based app for configuration of the camera, but it pretty seemlessly integrates, so it’s hard to tell what might be local and what might be cloud. I should test for that.

The driveway camera was more involved because I needed to run an ethernet cable to where I wanted to place it. Happily, most of our attic is pretty open and the wire was easy to run. The camera runs on PoE, so again glad to have that Cisco SG200 switch.

I didn’t have PoE in the workshop/barn, so I had to order a suitable injector. Again the camera came up easily and I have grown to appreciate Amcrest products.

I found that the 32G SD cards that I had readily available for the cameras’ local recording would fill up pretty fast, so I ordered some 256G cards from Amazon. They arrived and I’m not sure what the issue was. They were SanDisk class 10 devices, but they would randomly unmount and recording would stop, sometimes requiring a reboot to restore functionality. [ed: now I know that the write speed of SD cards is important with video] I put the 32G cards back in, but at even pretty modest settings, they would fill and auto overwrite in just a few days, particularly as each alarm event is recorded at a higher rate and I was still getting a lot of video motion detection alarms as I tweaking all that.

I had noticed that one of the recording options was to send to a Network Attached Storage device. I thought that might be a good solution, plus we didn’t really have any appreciably data backup strategies for our laptops. I did some shopping and YouTubing and decided that a single drive Synology NAS would probably suit me well, so I ordered a DS120j with a 2TB disk.

Almost immediately upon getting it set up and learning about its features, I found that Synology has a Network Video Recorder app for their NAS called Surveillance Station. That turns out to be way better than just using the NAS to store the camera’s recording files. It is a fully featured NVR and video is stored locally.

However, nothing is perfect. I discovered that Surveillance Station is license bound. The NAS comes with licenses for two cameras. When you have two cameras and go through the procedure to add a third, you are given an option to continue after selecting which of your existing cameras to disable or to cancel. The licenses are not particularly cheap, either. However, I decided that I liked the advantages enough to pay it, and it was still cheaper than a dedicated NVR. So, thinking about where I wanted to put cameras, I ordered a 4-pack of licenses for a little less than $200.

Then is when I learned about the other imperfection. The essentially minimal hardware NAS I had would support a maximum of five cameras. The system resources are the limitation and Synology, wisely I suppose, will not let you over stress the hardware. So now I had five usable licenses and one unusable $50 license. Sigh. The next higher rated hardware is a two drive unit that can support 12 cameras and the next one after that does 25. If I feel the need enough, I can migrate my existing disk to it

I know that I can migrate a disk because I have done it once. By then, I had four cameras connected and I was also taking up some file space with several hundred uncompressed photos for astrophotography.

I had fears that I would outgrow my 2TB disk. By December, I ordered a 6TB replacement disk and a 2TB USB 3 external SSD and performed a complete backup using one of the Synology provided tools. It was a very slow process; I left it overnight because I got tired of waiting for it to finish. [ed: yes, the write speed of the 2TB USB drive was a big factor in that slow process] Synology treated the new 6TB disk like it was a new out-of-the-box NAS. Once it completed all its formatting gyrations, I plugged in my backup drive and started the restore process. It took another several hours, but worked flawlessly. The only loss was the footage that would have been live between in end of the backup and the end of the restoral.

It suddenly occurs to me that it was probably slow on backup because Surveillance Station was hitting the drive with 4 new live streams the whole time it was trying to back up the disk. Perhaps I will remember that and take it offline first next time.

Network Chuck strikes again. In my hope to further avoid cloud services for things in my house, I think the benefits of reverse proxy are attractive. In this particular instance, Network Chuck deploys it in the form of a free Kemp load balancer.

I should have made notes setting this up because getting the hardware in place to run a Proxmox hypervisor upon which the Kemp VM can be deployed had it’s own story. I had a fanless PC that I once tried to use as a Windows jump box for ham radio applications out in the workshop. I never could align all the sleep features such that it would not turn off after a couple of hours. Proxmox of course has none of those kinds of features. I think I upgraded RAM but I definitely added a 120GB SSD. BTW, I did try to load the free ESXi hypervisor, but there was something it didn’t like about the machine, but Proxmox loaded and ran just fine.

I did not finish getting the Kemp stuff up and running. Rather than strictly follow the examples in the video where Chuck shows us how to set up a domain name with FreeNom, I wanted to use an underutilized name I already have with a different registrar. I had some trouble getting it to do what was expected and I have not yet finished the process. I will revisit at some point.

More cameras: The driveway camera can *just* see the front gate and I wanted to put a camera out there by the gate for better coverage. My phone has a usable signal from the house Wi-Fi , but being 170ft from the house means power could be an issue.

I ordered a camera that sounded promising, an outdoor Wi-Fi connected camera with a USB power cord and a 12V to USB adapter dongle, the intent being to connect it to the solar charged battery that is already out there for the gate opener. Unfortunately, it would be late March before I got around to setting it up. In the mean time, it also occurred to me that the gate draws nearly nothing unless the operators are actually moving the gates, but the camera is going to draw something 24/7, though due to the nature of the USB connector, I could feel confident it should be 10W or less. As the gate is a kind of security and safety thing for which it would suck to have a dead battery, I decided I would just add a separate battery, solar panel and charge controller for the camera.

The panel is a 25W panel, I’m sure bigger than is needed. I also found a charge controller that has USB outputs, so I don’t even need the power dongle anymore. I’ll repurpose those to our kayaks or something. I already had a couple of battery boxes and elected to rob a lawn tractor battery from a mower and replace it later.

I was not completely surprised to find that the Wi-Fi signal from the gate to the house is ok, but not really solid. My intent was to deploy the old Belkin Wi-Fi extender from years past. I have seen it recently, but I could not find it. I presume it is in a box that I didn’t open. Instead of continuing the search, I ordered a BrosTrend AC1200 to extend the house WiFi into the garage, which is closer to the gate. Another AC1200 will figure prominently into the Starlink story.

The EnGenius WDS bridge between the house and workshop/barn had been in solid service for nearly 10 years when something started getting flaky on one or the other. The received signal on the workshop end dropped significantly, -100 dBm, down from -30 or so. It’s unclear whether that one had a receive problem or the other end had a transmit problem; they would look the same if you just look at signal strength. The unit on the workshop end is fairly near a light that is on all the time. During the spring and summer, there is an absolute bounty of bugs, spiders and geckos feasting on one another, so I thought perhaps some bugs had gotten inside the unit, as I’m sure anyone might suspect given the conditions.

Unfortunately for the story, the unit is well made and the electronics are very well protected from the ingress of dust, let alone critters. It was very clean inside.

Since my plans for Starlink would depend on a reliable link between the house and workshop, I started shopping. My original plan was to stick with what works, another pair of ENH500s, or since it’s been 10 years, whatever may have replaced them in EnGenius’ lineup. They do have a newer model, but they were about $200 a pair, which is not super expensive, but I kept shopping anyway. There were several units that were sold singly for less than $100 a pair but I had just a little instinctive reservation about them; hard to explain. However, I also found that Ubiquiti has units that were physically similar, identical perhaps, to the suspect units. Ubiquiti has a good reputation, so I went for a pair of AirMAX LiteBeam ACs, $140 delivered. They arrived quickly, were easy to mount and easy to configure. With default settings, they were good for 300-ish Mbps, which should be plenty, but I tweaked with settings and got quite a bit more potential data rate out of them.

I was in California for a work telephone project when I got the email: Starlink was ready to ship! I quickly confirmed my order, forked over the balance and also ordered the ethernet adapter that is required to plug it in. The older version had an ethernet jack, but for the new one, it’s an add-on accessory. There is much grumbling about that on r/Starlink.

Since the whole Starlink installation is a week long experience of its own, and as I am writing this, it I have *just* completed it, I’ll continue that story in a post of its own.

A Novel Experience

I have told this story before. I first became a Novice (KA5RZY) ham in the early 1980’s. I upgraded to Technician (N5HRK) in the mid 80’s. I never got over the 13 word per minute hump, so never upgraded to General. Many years passed and I did Other Things ™ and my license lapsed so hard that even the 10 year renewal grace period was years out of date when I got interested in the hobby again around 2011 or so. I had to study and test again to get my license anew. It is a no-code license and between the study tools and my own experiences, it was possible for me to take the tests for Technician, General and Extra in one sitting. I kinda squeaked by Extra (AE5XB), but I did pass. I didn’t like my new Extra call all that much, though it did have a X in it. I searched for a vanity call. For all the searching, the best vanity call for me was my old Technician call, so here I am, N5HRK again.

Also, 10 years have passed and it is time to renew my license and for the first time ever, I did it.

One Orbit Closer

I received my Arrow antenna today. It is trivial to assemble and seems really well designed and built.

Knowing I would be using two radios to achieve duplex operation, I ordered it without a duplexer. However, I failed to order any BNC cabling with it and I don’t have any BNC connectors to make the necessary cabling, so, I packed it down into it’s handy portable bag, ordered what I will need and began the next stage of waiting.

And Sputnik Was His Name-O

I received my MFJ-1866 discone antenna. Assembly was trivial, basically screw all the elements into the right holes, short ones on top, long ones on bottom. It looks as much like Goddard’s early work as an antenna.

I mused that it looked like Sputnik and my wife has already called it Sputnik (as in, “Are you going to move Sputnik out of the bedroom?”

Sputnik it is.

I did screw up my order, though. I had toyed back and forth with what coax I was ordering and ended up with the unintended product in my cart in the end. I ordered a 50′ jumper of 400MAX, which is awesome cable, but it’s 1/2″ diameter stuff and I had intended to get much thinner RG-8X as there will be a 6-8 foot bit of it showing… INSIDE THE HOUSE! It’s not like I’ll never have a use for the 400MAX, so I’m conflicted on whether to jump through the returns hoops, but delays delays delays. I *may* have some RG-58 laying about already, leftovers from a trapped dipole antenna project I started at the old house. There is a box in the storage container that says “ANT TRAPS” that has been misinterpreted by more than one person.

I did connect the discone with a short cable to the SDRdx. Even sitting on the floor in the spare bedroom, it improved reception over the Comet SMA ducky that was used before and I was able to pick up a few 70cm repeaters. Receiving on 2M was a problem, though.

SDRuno

Note the terrible birdies. The receiver and antenna are just a few cubits from my LAN gear, most notably a Cisco PoE switch powering a few Polycom phones. As that is my day job and I work from home, they must remain. However, my personal laptop kinda lives in that room for now and it was the easiest (read: least nanny state) to install the software on. All this will get better when it is moved away from that cluster.

Fun fact, the screen capture above is from my phone, running the Android version of Microsoft’s Remote Desktop, connected to the laptop running SDRuno. Mouse operations are a little weird, but it otherwise works just fine.

Long term, I’m thinking the discone may go into the attic, with the *thin* coax coming down into the kitchen; we have a DirecTV coax coming down in an unobtrusive corner. Then I can kinda shoehorn a little VHF/UHF/SWL station in that corner where we have a PC or two, using the SDR and my FTM-100DR with an antenna switch. RDP lets me work it from largely anywhere else. I can also play with putting the FTM-100 on WIRES-X at that time. The trouble with evil plans is that they just keep comin’.

My Arrow antenna has not shipped yet. The order confirmation said “Your order is estimated to ship within five business days. Orders usually ship within two business days.” Today is the evening of 7th business day, not even counting the day I ordred, so it’s late, but probably not late enough for me to reasonably complain. :/

Sat On A Light

There have been amateur radio satellites in orbit for literally my entire life. Hams were in space only four years behind the Russians, less than a year before I was born. It also was the first satellite deployed as a secondary payload from a primary launch… ejected using a spring purchased from Sears. Remember, it doesn’t *have* to be expensive to work, but if *my* life is in the balance, I’d rather it was. It should at least be a McMaster-Carr spring…

The first time I heard of amateur radio satellites, I presumed that was an exotic part of the hobby that only the ham elite (read: rich hams) would ever have access to. I think a big part of that was the math needed to predict orbits and the presumption that exceptional precision would be needed. Turns out that it’s not particularly difficult, but neither is it trivial. Johannes Kepler figured it out on paper by candlelight. With the advent of personal computers in general and the ubiquitous smart phone in particular, much of that number crunching is a few finger swipes away. Now working satellites seems to be reduced to learning the idiosyncrasies introduced by chasing a slowly tumbling 1/2 watt transceiver 300 miles away while it flies by at 17,000 miles per hour. Piece o’ cake.

I exaggerate the difficulty, though not the conditions. As rough as that sounds, it can be done with as little as a handheld antenna and a dual band HT, assisted by some tracking software.

Armed with some basic tips obtained from various YouTube sources (which I will detail below) and an Android app, I was able to pick up the beacon on a couple of satellite passes with only my existing base station gear, an Icom IC-7100 and a Diamond X-300A. This is a fixed base station antenna optimized for transmitting and receiving towards the horizon.

Undocumented Satellite Beacon Pass

Note that I am chasing the Doppler frequency shift, which is one of the two biggest idiosyncrasies. Satellites are moving fast enough for Doppler frequency shift to matter. Most satellites operate crossband, with an uplink that is either 2M or 70cm and a downlink that is the other band. Obviously both are affected by Doppler shift, but as it is a percentage effect, the higher the frequency, the larger the effect, so 70cm is more affected that 2M.

Having now heard such a birdie tone intentionally, I am reasonably sure that I have accidentally heard them before and perhaps just didn’t realize it was a satellite! How simple must it be if I can do it accidentally?

I have tried a couple times since then to hear QSOs and I can *just* tell there *might* be something there, maybe the tiniest bit of a beat tone tuning the range, but not enough to pull out of the noise.

To give myself the best chance of success, I ordered an Arrow 146/437-10WBP antenna. This is a 3 element 2M and a 7 element 70cm on a shared boom. The BP suffix is the split boom (back pack) version which breaks down easily for transport, so I also got the carrying bag for it. At this writing, it has not yet arrived. Being a handheld antenna, it helps with the other major idiosyncrasy, polarization fading. As the satellite tumbles in microgravity, the antennae are changing orientation and being able to rapidly change polarization is one strategy for coping with that. Antennas built with circular polarization is another.

My plan to start is to try FM using two handhelds. I have 2 each Baofeng UV-5Rs, RD-5Rs and an Icom ID-51, so I can mix and match as necessary.

I also used this as an excuse to picked up an SDRPlay receiver, the SDRdx model. I have nearly purchased an SDRPlay receiver a few times over the last few years, but never pulled the trigger. I’m not sure if it will actually be used for satellites or not, but I imagine I will at least experiment with it. Plus, everything else you can do with an SDR πŸ™‚ Not necessarily only for satellite use, but for very wideband SDR reception, I got an MFJ-1866 discone antenna. This will be my first experience with a discone. This model can do double duty as a 200W transmit antenna for 2M to 23cm as well. It might become the first antenna mounted on the house, as opposed to the workshop.

I’ma Call It Finished

I decided that if I waited until it was perfect, it would never be declared as “finished”.

I managed to put some deep scratches in there that were proving difficult to remove.

This picture was taken with the light at an angle to highlight the scratches, so in the hand, it doesn’t look quite as bad πŸ™‚

The handle is mesquite, sanded to 600 and finished with Danish oil. It has a very nice feel.

Next, I tear into the other blank, though I may fabricate a bevel grinding jig of some sort first.

Three Years? Really?

I guess it has been.

I have done a few things ham related in the last three years, but I haven’t really been very active on the air. Bad ham!

In February of 2017, I installed the FTM-100DR in my new Kia Sportage. I did not want to drill the roof for the antenna, so I used a magnetic mount, but I found a clever way to route the cable into the car.

There are rubber plugs on the rear gate.

And a cable passthrough from the gate to the body of the car to fish the cable through…

From there, I don’t have any good pictures of it, but I fished the coax from there down to the spare tire well.

By then, the end of the coax was reached and I had to add a connector and more coax to make it reach the front of the car. From there, it’s a pretty normal tuck under the floor mats to the driver side console.

About a year later, I ran the wire to remote mount the control head on the windshield. Sorry about the focus. πŸ™‚

Among the things I enjoyed with the FTM-100DR was playing with APRS. The FTM-100DR can do APRS or something else, but not really both. It can sort of receive APRS messages while being set up to transmit voice, but if it is beaconing APRS data, it’s beaconing data. This was only one factor driving my desire to upgrade, so it was natural to choose the FTM-400XDR. As a side benefit, it was a drop in replacement in the car. Same mounting bracket and power cable for the main unit, same remote cable and suction cup for the control head. And now, APRS is a fully supported feature that can be turned on and off at will with almost no effect on voice operations.

My IC-706MkIIg had been a great rig, but had developed an intermittent transmit problem. Since I generally use it with RemoteRig, I can’t do anything physical to the radio when this issue comes up. I don’t operate often enough to want to deal with a troublesome rig, so I bit the bullet on getting another. I didn’t want a used rig, so I shopped around a bit. I was looking for another rig with with a detachable head for use with RemoteRig; I like that paradigm. I did not have any particular bias for Icom, but I did like the control head for the IC-7100. It seemed well suited to remote operation on a desktop.

Ironically, when I was ready to connect it to the RemoteRig, I found that the radio end unit was non-functional. It had been a while since I’d used it, so I don’t know if it was a storm or long term heat out in the shop that killed it. Long story short, it had no signs of life and the voltage regulator on the board ran super hot, not enough to melt anything, but definitely not right. I contacted Microbit and after a couple of emails and tests back and forth, it was determined to be unrepairable. They sold me a replacement board at a discount price, which was fine with me. It was relatively trivial to get the IC-7100 working over RemoteRig.

Since the IC-7100 has a built in USB soundcard for digital modes, I wanted to look into that. The connectivity with RemoteRig and the USB port is complicated, so I also looked into Icom’s RS-BA1 remote software. To operate *that* remotely, I needed a PC that was local to the radio and it seemed like a tiny fanless PC would suit the purpose.

It worked mostly, but I had a lot of trouble getting it to stay awake long term, no matter what BIOS settings I use. It would be fine for a couple of days then it would go to sleep. I would have go out there and touch it to wake it up. Within a few months, it went belly up as well. I have not revisited it as yet.

Some time back, I bought a new Icom ID-51 handheld. After a couple of years, I decided to sell it because I just had no real use for one out here in the country. Then around January 2018, I decided to get another for access to D-Star. Shrug. Make up my mind!

Speaking of handhelds, inspired largely by Radioddity review and tutorial videos from Dave Casler, I got interested in DMR. Of course, no DMR repeaters in handheld range out here, but Radioddity BaoFeng radios are cheap enough to get two and set them up for simplex operation between the two. It works pretty well, so whenever I do find some DMR repeaters somewhere, I should be able to join in. Plus, there’s always the DMR hotspot angle. Pay no attention to whatever that frequency is there. It was in the radio when I turned it on.

I have never been truly active enough to *justify* QSL cards, at least not in my mind, but I still wanted some. I finally had an epiphany and figured out what would be the best QSL card for me. I found a caricature artist service online and had them produce a portrait suitable for QSL cards.

Flying Dog Forge

It may seem that forging is a new hobby for me, but it’s not, really. I just haven’t had enough activity to justify it’s own blog.

A million years ago, I started a dagger using a friend’s well equipped shop. Somewhere I have some pictures of that happening. Somewhere, I have that partly completed blade.

Quite a few years ago, my wife gifted me with a Harbor Freight anvil. For a brief period, they carried a Russian made 110 pound (50 kg, really) anvil that is really decent steel, not the usual anvil shaped objects that are largely much softer cast iron generally available from the Usual Suspects. It rings. Maybe an amount of ring that needs addressing hehehe.

This anvil has been used for all kinds of almost-but-not-quite forging operations over the years. One always needs a heavy chunk of steel for straightening the support rod on your chronograph when it gets shot.

But it had not done proper forging.

In March 2019, I ordered a Majestic Knifemaker propane forge, but it would be mid June 2020 before it would finally be lit.

Leading up to the fire, the anvil had suffered some degree of use and abuse, even serving briefly as extra weight on the front of our tractor when we had to unload some extra heavy round bales.

Even before serving emergency ballast duty, it needed some TLC.

Using mostly flap discs in the angle grinder and a flat stone that was WAY more effort that it seems to have been worth, the light coat of rust and the rough machine marks yielded. I followed up with some masking tape, black paint and finally a coat of CorrosionX.

The mottled coloration is from the difference in finish between the flap disc and the flat stone. It is all smooth to the touch.

As is often the case, the first thing to make was tongs. My farrier loaned me a couple pair of tongs for the purpose of making tongs, as well as gifting me with a decent stack of discarded rasps.

I chose to start with the Rapid Flat Jaw Tongs from Ken’s Custom Iron, available as an affordable bundle of five pairs. These tongs were among several reviewed and recommended by John at Black Bear Forge.

These start as CNC plasma cut blanks of 5/16 plate steel. You draw out the reins first.

Then turn and shape the jaws

Drill, rivet and fine tune. Somewhere in there, I applied my touchmark. I’m pretty happy with how they turned out.

The next major tool needed/wanted was a 2×72 belt grinder. Like almost everything else, there are two basic ways to do these, build or buy. Building is obviously the cheapest. Buying is the fastest. The trick is deciding what your time is worth, how much is too much to pay for someone else to build it for you.

I knew that my welding skills are good *enough* to build one if it comes in a kit form. I’m not really comfortable enough with my fabrication skills to build one straight from scratch. By the time I gather all the right parts, cut, weld, grind, etc., it would have to be really cheap to offset the advantages of unboxing it, plugging it in and turning it on.

I shopped quite a lot. For the most part, bare bones grinders tend to start, in 2020 at least, at about $1800 and generally, that is without a motor, speed control, etc. So, when I found Origin Blade Maker and a package that had a turnkey ready to grind package for $1800, it got my attention. This package has the grinder frame, a 2 horsepower motor with VFD, platen with idler wheels, 10 inch contact wheel and set of small wheels with small wheel holder. Many of the grinders I found are $1800 for just the grinder frame and platen and everything else is extra.

I ordered that package and a few accessories so that in total, I have all that plus 4 inch and 2 inch contact wheels, three tool rests and enough tooling arms for all of them to be quick change.

I mounted it on a dedicated table and mounted ubolts on the edges of the table to hold the tooling arms.

There are similar rings on the other side of the table as well.

I’ve mentioned this elsewhere, but it bears detailing here as well. In mid November, I slipped and fell HARD on my left side, breaking my shoulder. Specifically, “comminuted fracture of the humeral head and a fracture of the humeral neck” which basically means that not only was the ball joint broken off, but it was split in half as well. I saw an orthopedic surgeon the following week. The surgeon didn’t even need his own imagery; the ER xrays were good enough for him to say, β€œwe’re replacing that.”

This is my left arm, so at least its not my hammering arm, but even so, no forging was going on through the end of 2020. My recovery is marching ahead nicely and I hope to be back at it soon.

Meanwhile, I have not let it completely stop me and I chose to make a material removal chef’s knife, based on an existing knife we have. Obviously, the grinder figures heavily in that.

I cut a blank out of 1/8″ 80CRV2.

I ground a distal taper into the blank. I didn’t measure the actual taper, but it’s slightly visible here as I am marking the edge.

I marked the edge with this edge scribing tool, one of the extra accessories I picked up from Origin Blade Maker. It is set to bisect the tip.

It makes the distal taper especially obvious. The heel is about 50% thicker than the tip.

As I was approaching this point in the grinding, it occurred to me that I had ground too far. The edge was going to be too thin for heat treatment!

It was too late anyway, so I drilled the tang and prepared to heat treat in a day or two.

I didn’t get enough pictures of the early parts of the heat treatment process. First, I heated the blade up enough to apply my touchmark. Then I heated to an even orange heat and checked with an IR thermometer for 1600F. I let it soak at that color for about 5 minutes then quenched it in cheap 30W motor oil. Why, yes, that does smell perfectly yummy.

And, as predicted, the really thin edge of the blade came out not just warped but completely wavy.

There’s always a slim chance it might relax some in the temper, so I put it in the toaster oven for a two 60 minute cycles at 450F, cooling to room temperature between.

There was no perceptible reduction in the warping.

The tempering cycles took the evening and overnight, so I immediately started on another blank that I would not make *that* particular mistake on. This time, I would heat treat the tapered and drilled blank, before grinding the bevels.

Here’s that one, after tempering, ready to grind.

As for the first blade, I just scribed a line describing it as a narrower blade, less a chef’s knife and more a carving knife.

I ground the new profile, reground the bevels and hand sanded it.

I put mesquite scales on it. It is perilously close to finished.

Late for My Semi-Annual…

I started this post September 2020…. I’m typing this sentence January 2021. It was February 2019 when I posted last.

It’s been a busy couple years since my last confession post.

Using a method that has worked for me before, I browsed through the pix from my phone for reminders of significant events in since the last update.

I decided long ago that I don’t particularly like the common and inexpensive CED shot timers. They work well enough and are quite compact, but my old-guy eyes have trouble reading the display. So, I wanted something with a bigger display and decided to get a Competition Electronics Pocket Pro II. I found one on Amazon and I was kind of expecting it to not be super cheap, so I purchased the one with a short shipping time and went about my life.

The next day, I was going to share the link to the factory website with someone and noticed that it was available for about half the price directly from Competition Electronics. I quickly ordered one from there and only then realized that I had bought the Amazon one, not from Amazon, but from a third party seller. I requested cancellation, but the timer arrived before I heard back from the seller, who then said “Sorry, but we only offer the present deal.” I did not trust them to not make it worse in the return process, so I decided to keep it and chalk it up to an expensive lesson learned. Also by then, the order from Competion Electronics had arrived. I decided that having two timers was a good idea and just put it out of my mind that I had way overspent on half of them. Hey, they are nice timers. Can you tell which one has the gold circuitry?

I started carrying my Glock 19 more often, mostly because I like the idea of having more ammo if needed. I know that statistically, I am astronomically unlikely to become involved in a firearm altercation at all, and if I do, it is also unlikely to need more than a couple of rounds to resolve it.

But what if I’m in that situation where I am the only armed person around and it does take more than a couple rounds to protect those around me?

Ammunition is kind of necessarily heavy. It’s how the physics works. You need something heavy or something fast and with handguns, fast (actually fast) is almost never a realistic option. There are a couple of fringe exceptions, but generally, big heavy slow is how pistols go.

Heavy ammo can add up if you want to carry more of it. One of the arguments for the adoption of 5.56mm back in the late 50’s was that a soldier could carry about 3 times the number of rounds in the equivalent volume for the same weight of 30.06. In my case, a Gen 3 Glock 19 with an empty magazine weighs 23.63 oz. 15 rounds of Hornady Critcal Defense adds 6.8 oz, for a pistol carry of 30.48 oz. A second 15 round magazine is another 9.32 oz to carry.

Inceptor is a polymer copper projectile ammunition. I’ve discussed it before, handloaded the projectiles and even won a 5th place trophy shooting it. It is lead free, and is good for all the reasons lead free ammo is good, plus it’s lightweight. The individual 9mm projectiles are 65 grains, compared to 115 for the Hornady. They get the muzzle energy from smokin’em out of the barrel at 1600+ fps. They are frangible, so they don’t overpenetrate and the use a clever shape and that velocity to make terminal performance in soft, wet targets.

From a carry ammo point of view, the 9mm Inceptor ARX ammo is lighter. Still has a brass case, but the bullet is only 55% as heavy. That works out to 4.47 oz less per 15 round magazine or 9 oz less for the whole rig.

The Glock loaded with Inceptor ARX is not necessarily my*every* day rig, but it is definitely the most days rig.

The 2019 Gulf Coast Championship was a fun match. The weather was a little chilly and threatening, but it never really rained on us.

As always, they put together a fun and challenging match. One of the fun stages (that I also happened to have done pretty well on) was also caught on video. I didn’t place, but I won a MantisX in the raffle! I already had one and I was able to sell one of them to a coworker. πŸ™‚

I built a slider target. I completely stole the idea, but my victim advised, so it’s probably ok. I streamlined some of the design elements by having a custom bend done on some metal. I actually made this thing back in October of 2018 and I’ll probably document that separately, but we finally tested it

The CoolFire training system is an awesome way to “dry” fire that’s not really dry firing. You get some recoil, some realistic action and you are using *your* pistol to train with. If I were to make one complaint, it would be that it would cool if there was a way to make it lock the slide back after some arbitrary number of shots for the most realistic simulation possible. All I have to do as actually use it on occasion. Once I had it, I ordered a laser module for it. Being less than careful, I ordered to wrong one. I happened to take the unit to IDPA World Championship (more on that later) and the CoolFire rep there swapped my module fwithout question. I’ve heard a couple of similar stories of high quality customer service from them.

Defender Outdoors added a Glock 18 to their fleet of rental guns. When it first arrived, they gave members an opportunity to reserve an appointment to shoot it before it went into normal rental rotation and I definitely had to do that. It was not uncontrollable by any means, but it was definitely a handful. 5 stars, would do again πŸ™‚

I have been handloading since the 1980’s, though back then, 100 rounds was a major project. Now 100 rounds is what I need for a local match. In all that time, I’d never had a primer detonation. Note the past tense.

I’ve been using the Dillon RF-100 to fill primer tubes for a while now. Also, I’ve been loading 9mm almost exclusively for a couple of years. Consequently, the trap I set for myself had been dormant for a long time. I was working on some metalworking project that involved using a handheld angle grinder at my bench vise. I had been grinding on and off for an hour or two when something went off, POW! Obviously, I stopped immediately. My first thought was that somehow, sparks from the grinder had set off a cartridge, as unlikely as I considered that to be. As I began looking around and saw where the damage was centered, it dawned on me what had happened.

Before I filled them one at a time with the RF-100, I kept a stock of filled primer tubes in a bin above the workbench, coincidentally directly behind the vise. Sparks had apparently gotten into the one and only tube of larger primers that was in that bin, left from the last batch of 45 Auto I had loaded. When the one primer on the end set off, it set off the rest of the tube.

Note the tube still in the bin is bent. All the empty tubes in that bin were bent to some degree and are now aluminum scrap.

Note also the little circle visible in the upper lefthand corner of the bin.

The tube launched through the back of the bin, through the pegboard, the sheetrock, the insulation….

… and tried it’s best to continue outside.

Inside, there were spent primers everywhere, including peppering my arm.

The spot marked in green would turn out to be most interesting a couple days later as the primer anvil that was lodged in there finally revealed itself. It hurt but didn’t really feel like anything was in there at first, but eventually, I saw a glint of brass and worked it out.

Primary lesson reinforced: Turns out primers shouldn’t be stored near sparks or flame. Who’da thunk it?

I got to attend and/or work my first IDPA Nationals and it was a special one, World Championship and Nationals combined *and* innaugural PCC Nationals. So, by submitting and having accepted my application to work that match, it was basically a two week long match at the Civilian Marksmanship Program range near Talldega, AL.

For the pistol match, the first day it seemed I could not hit ANYTHING. The morning of the 2nd day, I noticed that the rear sight on my pistol was WAY off to the right. It was loose. I used some improvised tools (a tent stake as a hammer, for example) and set it straight, but it was far too late to place. Since it was two matches, I got to run over 400 shooters during the entire event. I got pretty good at it.

Being as it was the World Championship, there were several teams from various countries. Our stage was sponsored by IDPA China and we got a great picture with the whole team.

I love my Dillon RL550B. It was my first Dillon press. I bought it from someone, who in turn had bought it used from someone else. Between the (at least) three of us, it has loaded probably several hundred thousand rounds. I had a part break on it and experienced the legendary Dillon customer service for that repair and refurbishment.

I was not *looking* for an upgrade, but a deal on a 650 came to me and I grabbed it.

I don’t care for the primer system. It works flawlessly, but it does not tolerate interruptions in production. It works exceptionally well, but it delivers primers with every stroke of the handle, whether you need a primer just then or not. Same for the case feeder. Sometimes, a case will feed upside down and when it gets to the plate, it jams things up. It generally takes a couple of strokes to clean up the mess. Meanwhile, a couple more unneeded primers have been fed…

All that having been said, I can loaded about 50% faster on the 650 than the 550, basically a couple hundred rounds per hour. A match worth of ammo takes about 30 minutes.

Sometimes, the case jam up can result in a partial or double powder drop. Most of the time, it’s easy to catch, but at least once, I missed it. I had my one and only kaboom.

So, the rule is: If you are going to have a double charge, at least it should be a double light load in an all-steel gun.

Neither me nor the pistol suffered any permanent damage. The event was merely days before Gulf Coast Championship and I was sweating bullets about it until a fellow CZ shooter offered his almost identical pistol for me to use in the match.

Gulf Coast Championship is always a blast and 2020 was no different, although timing-wise, it was kinda the last match most of us got to go to for a long time.

My own experience was unique in a couple of ways. Remember my kaboom and my concerns about my pistol. Turns out, all that worry was misplaced. I should have been worrying about having not practiced PCC, since *that* was what I had signed up to shoot at GCC. It was my 2nd major match shooting PCC (first was Nationals, so there’s that) and my otherwise solid performing PCC had a mechanical failure partway through. It was not my week.

See if you can tell from points down which stage it was…

The issue was that the firing pin retaining pin, a known issue on this firearm, had finally failed. Now. Of course. I was able to borrow a PCC from a fellow Rudy Project Team member to complete the match.

Here’s the funny bit. Even with that, I was 4th in my class and division and without that 62 down, I would have come in 2nd.

It was about now that COVID-19 really started having a big impact on gatherings, the daily commute, shopping… pretty much everything. From the end of GCC 2020 on March 14, I did an absolute TON of stuff, just almost none of it was shooting related until August 28, where I managed to place 4th ESP Sharpshooter at TRUGLO 2020 Texas State IDPA Championship. Considering the dearth of practice opportunities, I was really pleased with that.

Finding primers is still a challenge for everyone. A friend pointed me to a deal of sorts for some surplus Fiocchi small rifle primers. They were not exactly free, but considering their condition and that it was 12000 to a box, they were reasonable. The seller revealed that they had been stored near a vent or some such and thus had some humidity related damage, but that in their testing, they had not had any failures.

Here is a closeup of these and some other primers.

The top two are the Fiocchi primers. One is an example of a pretty bad one, one pretty clean. The rest of the primers are new primers, a mix of pistol and rifle primers.

My own testing concurs with the seller’s. Regardless of their ugly duckling status, they tend to always fire, so long as they are hit hard enough. They *are* rifle primers, so the thicker cup needs a harder whack. If you have tweaked your trigger, you probably are striking your primers lighter than stock and even stock might be lighter than needed for rifle primers.

There is an issue, though. I sometimes have trouble getting them to seat all the way and *that* can cause them to fire going into battery. No, not good.

Speaking of COVID delays, I was accepted as a member of Dallas Pistol Club in April. I had to cancel my first new member orientation not directly because of COVID, but because I ended up working all that Saturday setting up remote users for my company. A couple more opportunities arose, including one the same Saturday as the TRUGLO match. Finally, October 18, I got to get my gate code and keys!

Also around October or November, we got back to doing limited indoor matches at Texas Gun Experience. In particular, on November 16, I had a match with a DNF. It’s hard to finish with a broken shoulder. I slipped and fell HARD on my left side. Ouch. Ambulance. Xrays. “Comminuted fracture of the humeral head and a fracture of the humeral neck” which basically means that not only was the ball joint broken off, but it was split in half as well. I saw an orthopedic surgeon the following week. The surgeon didn’t even need his own imagery; the ER xrays were good enough for him to say, “we’re replacing that.”

I’m well into the Physical Therapy phase of my recovery. I’m nowhere near 100%, but I think I’ll be able to safely attempt a pistol match in the next 30 days or so.

So, that catches us up, shootin-wise. You’ll have to check out the other blogs, including the new one, to see what *else* I’ve been up to.