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Scary, Smart, Loud ‘n Clear – My Weekend

Posted by Tom Benedict on 20/08/2012

Sorry, no good machining stories or photography stories from the weekend. I did start drawing up the main halyard winch from our Pacific Catamaran in the hopes of building a new one, but it also looks like I can press the old one back into service with a little work. And I brought my KAP gear to the beach on Sunday, but didn’t put a camera up. Still, the weekend wasn’t without story material:


Saturday morning, we decided to pick up all the toys in the yard, clean up the porch, basically de-redneck. (No, my Jeep is not up on blocks yet, but that’s another story from the weekend.) My son grabbed all the slippers and crocs from the back porch and took them inside to clean. Why he brought them inside to clean in the bathtub instead of using the hose outside, I’ll never know. But he did. And somehow I wound up having to clean the tub, not him. (Go figure…)

About halfway through, the screaming started. Loud screaming. Screaming with purpose! That could mean only one of two things. I tore off running for the bathroom. “What happened?!” I yelled.

I saw a brown widow spider!” my son replied.

I took two things away from this: One, there was a brown widow in my bathroom – my son knows full well what they look like. Second, he saw it, but wasn’t bit by it. WHEW!

In case you’re not familiar with brown widows, they’re quite similar to black widows. Their bite packs only a slightly less mighty wallop than the bite of a black widow. For a kid his size, it would’ve meant an ER visit at the very least. And yeah, the place where we live is rife with them. Normally when we encounter a stray animal in the house, we stick it in a container and take it somewhere safe for the animal to be released. But I draw the line on centipedes and brown widows. My younger daughter teared up when I flushed it, but down it went. I breathed a sigh of relief. So did my son.


Some months back the left side mirror on my Jeep fell off. The pivot had rusted through, and it just flopped off on the ground one day. There was no way to put it back together, so I ordered a new pair of mirrors off an online Jeep parts retailer. The new mirrors came in a few days, and… there were no instructions. I looked through my repair manual. No help there, either.

From what I could see, they screwed in from the inside of the door. ??! The inside? How the heck was I supposed to do that? I looked at the door, but didn’t see any real way to get at the screws. So I tossed the mirrors in the back of my Jeep and learned to drive with two out of three mirrors. For the record, no, this isn’t safe. And no, it’s not smart. And actually, I’m pretty sure I could’ve been pulled over for it. But my options were starting to look like removing the door panels, taking out the windows, and then drilling through the inside of the door since there was no other way to get at the screw heads. I figured I could wait on it until my next safety inspection.

Which, of course, came due in August. Oh wait! It’s August! And just in time, my car blew a turn signal bulb, lost most of its brake fluid, and came due for an oil change. It really does hate me. I swear it does. But I love it anyway. So Rydra and I drove to NAPA and picked up stuff for an oil change, air filter change, a new set of bulbs, and brake fluid. When we got home she said, “You need to replace that mirror if you want to pass inspection.”

“Yeah, I have them right here.” I showed her where they’d been living in my car for the last few months.

“Why haven’t you put them on?” she asked.

I went into the whole song and dance about how I’d have to take my doors apart, maybe drill into them, etc. I sounded like a total whiner, I’m sure. She stared at me through all of this, then proceeded to show me how the covers snap on and off of the things so you can get at the screw heads really easily, because they’re on the outside of the door where a sensible person would put them. What I had been struggling with for months, she figured out in under ten seconds. >sigh<

(Now do you see why I get frustrated when we can’t find any women applying for our telescope engineer positions!)

She graciously helped me install my new mirrors, and stood by while I topped off the brake fluid. “Why was your fluid low?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I replied.

As she walked inside she said, “I’d look for a leak if I was you.”

I looked under the car. Brake fluid was oozing out of my left rear brake. >sigh< One more repair on the list: rebuilding the rear brakes.

Loud ‘n Clear

After the whole “let’s work on the Jeep!” fiasco, we headed down to the beach. I love going there. It helps that Hapuna Beach, one of the top ten rated beaches in the world, is less than fifteen minutes from our house. I also just never run out of stuff to do there. From swimming to boogie boarding to diving off the rocks, it’s a great place to go. Of course half the time I do none of those things because I’m doing something else. Reading a book, flying a kite, doing kite aerial photography, it’s all fair game.

Hapuna A650 July, 2011

This time I brought my KAP gear, but I brought something else as well: a shortwave radio. I’ve had one for ten years or so. But ever since getting my ham license, it’s been something of a tease. “Here! You can listen, but you can’t taaaaalk! Hahahaha!” Yeah, whatever. But until I have my General license and an HF rig to use, it’s as close to the longer bands as I’m going to get. Like the song goes, it’s not having what you want, it’s wanting what you’ve got. So rather than stress it, I’ve been having fun with it.

But a radio is nothing without an antenna. And often it’s the antenna that makes the real difference, not the radio. So some months back I started looking into what I could do to improve the reach of my shortwave. The idea is pretty simple: Run three wires in parallel, each of a different length, and connect them all at one end. Make the lengths right, and you have a multi-band antenna. I got the idea from this site. (Yes, yes, the site calls for four wires. I only had three-conductor wire on hand, so I lost one of the bands. It’s still pretty darned cool!) But rather than hang this from a tree or a post, as in the article, I suspended it from a kite line. A ground wire running down into the wet sand let me use the beach and ocean as my ground plane.

The antenna went together in an afternoon, and was easily rolled onto an old kite line spool I had lying around. And that’s where it sat for a long, long time. We had stopped going to the beach for a while, so I didn’t have reason to pull it out. This time, I was pulling it out!

The antenna weighed less than my DSLR KAP rig, so I knew the kite would lift it. Once it was airborne, I clipped the antenna on and let line out to hoist it up. Every ten feet or so I had another clip so the kite line would support the antenna for its full length. When the entire antenna was up, I tied off the kite line and set the ground spike in the sand. Then I plugged the antenna into my radio and turned it on.


I had no idea the radio waves were that jammed. I picked up China easily, then picked up several Australian stations. Next was a whole set from South America (though my Spanish is too poor to figure out which ones). Next was Japan. These were all incredibly clear. It didn’t even qualify as DX the signal strength was so high. I thought I heard one that was either German or Dutch, but I couldn’t be sure. Just to make sure the antenna was actually doing something, I unplugged it. (It’s a receiver, so no chance of a blown output amplifier stage.) Dead silence. I plugged it back in, and WHAM! Everything was back.

We had to leave well before I was done scanning all the bands my antenna gave me. I didn’t even take notes on which stations I’d picked up. There were just too many. I’ll be more systematic next time. I swear.

When I got home, I did some poking around just to see what it would take to do this with an HF transceiver. As it turns out, not much. Since this was a receive-only antenna, I got away with using very lightweight wire. But MFJ makes a multi-band center-fed dipole that looks like it would hang from a kite line, too. The antenna is rated for 1500W of transmitter power. I doubt I could find an HF rig that would fit in a backpack that could even come close to that. So the antenna problem is solved.

Just more incentive to hit the books and get my General license. Meanwhile, I’ve got something new to do at the beach on the weekends.

– Tom

5 Responses to “Scary, Smart, Loud ‘n Clear – My Weekend”

  1. Ramon said

    Another nice story from Hawaii. Read it all, but what draw my attention was, of course, the antenna part of the story. Great results, Tom! I am curious what kind of radio you are using at the moment. Did you use a bleeder restistor to avoid damage to the radio due to the build up of static voltages? And… are you sure all signals you received are ‘genuine’ (not intermodulation products) :0) ? Did you ever see this: (a similar story with pics)?

    Cheers from NL!


  2. Tom Benedict said

    This first pass didn’t have one, but I knew I was going to use it at the beach (equals high humidity here) so the danger of static build-up is low. There’s no way I’d use it somewhere like the summit of Mauna Kea without one. In any case I’d like to change out the kite line hangers, change my ground spike, and yes, add the bleeder resistor. So it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.

    I have seen your web site, by the way. That’s actually what got me motivated to try this. I knew you’d done this with an HF radio. Long-term that’s my goal, too. But since I already had the shortwave in-hand, and since a receive-only antenna would be cheaper to build, I started with that.

    The radio I’m using is a re-labeled Sangean shortwave. I’m pretty sure it’s completely SDR, but it’s been ages since I’ve looked at the schematic to see which chip set it uses. I don’t know how it stacks up against other shortwaves. I got it long before I ever considered getting into ham radio. So it’s a bit of a black box. These days I’m just glad I can stick batteries in it and have it turn on! It took me a while to remember where the AM/LSB/USB switch was so I could listen in on some ship-to-shore communication. A refresher would do me good.

    I’m pretty sure the signals were legitimate and not intermodulation since the only way I could tell where a signal was coming from was to listen to it and try to figure out what language was being spoken. I did get a fair bit of splatter, so I expect there were some junk signals as well. But it’s been so long since I used this radio, I can’t remember if there are any spots where I’m hearing harmonics of the local oscillator or any of the other gunk a radio can make for itself. Before I sit down in with this in any sort of systematic way, I’d need to go back through all the notes I have on this radio to make sure I’m not sitting there listening to amplifier hum and thinking it’s some wonderful mysterious signal. 🙂

    I probably won’t have a chance to tear into the antenna and make any of those changes any time soon, unfortunately. It’s looking like I’m going to be swamped at work through February now. At this rate I may not get to take time off at Christmas and New Year. It makes me want to cry.



  3. Ramon said

    Hey, what type should I look for? I didn’t know Sangean was into SDR, so your radio must be fairly new. I ever considered buying a Sangean, but in the end decided to stick with Sony portables like the SW7600G and a use SW77 which I had to repair myself to keep some money in the pocket for… KAP stuff.

    When I tested the longwire on my SW77 I had to switch on the attenuator and even use an external one (together about 25 dB) to keep the RX from creating its own stations. So… you might have heard some signals that weren’t really there :0)

    Don’t cry because of all the work that is swamping you. Be glad you still have a great job. The crisis still isn’t over yet and I’m pretty sure it will linger on for another while. And eventually we will have an intercontinental /kite connection on the airwaves…

  4. Tom Benedict said

    It’s a Radio Shack DX-398, which is a re-labeled Sangean ATS-909. I got it about ten years ago. Now that I look at it, I’m pretty sure it’s not an SDR. I also found the list of birdies, so I know where that noise is located now.

    I can’t remember how I had the attenuation set. Lemme pull out the radio… Oookay. Rather than a switch, the ATS-909 has an RF gain knob. I didn’t even remember it was there when I was using the kite antenna! Turns out it was turned all the way down. I also had the filter set to wide. (Cripes! I didn’t look at this stuff at all!)

    I made a couple of modifications on the radio when I got it. Nothing huge, but they made the radio easier to use. By default, it muted any time you tuned. There’s an easy mod to leave the audio output on when tuning. Another was to lessen the detent on the tuning knob so it can be spun one-fingered. I think there was one more mod I made, but I can’t remember what it was.

    Anyway, one of the things I like about it is that it fits right on top of my reel in my kite bag. I’m guessing the same is true of any portable SW radio, though.

    Ok, you got me going again. Time to go back through the manual for this thing so I actually have it set up better the next time I go out!


    P.S. And no, I’m not regretting my job at all. It’s still a dream job for me. I just ran out of steam. After climbing up on the dome Wednesday to look at the shutter, I finally lost the battle against this cold I’ve been fighting for over a week. By the time I got down, I felt like hell. But I’m back up Monday.

    P.P.S. I’ll bring my notebook next time I go out and use this radio/antenna combo.

    P.P.P.S. And yes, I’m putting in the bleeder resistor before I do! And making a better ground spike.

    • Ramon said

      Yep, that’s the one I was looking into, but then the Sangean version, ATS 909. Nice piece of radio, can be upgraded with some tweaks here and there. Probably the same stuff what you did to yours.

      Frankly I haven’t used the SW77 for a while – well, a very long while. I need to dust it off and look for the power supply which must be laying around somewhere. This radio is far too nice to keep it on the shelf and only look at it every now and then. I also need to open it to thoroughly clean it on the inside as I once left the batteries in which started leaking and caused some serious stains…

      Just started reading your latest update on what you ‘exactly’ do at the telescope. Man, you have a dream job if you’d ask me!

      Need to continue reading the story right now..!

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