Tuesday, September 9, 2014

"Not in log"

In late March I decided to try operating a SSB contest using QRP and my wire antennas. The contest was CQ WPX. In my report on the contest I made a variety of observations regarding why SSB, and SSB contests in particular, can be so difficult.

QSO rates and totals are worse than in CW contests because the challenge to get the other station to copy puny signals is much greater. I half joked in my article that operators who failed to properly copy my call or exchange before rushing onward to the next contact would be the ones to suffer.
Let's face it, in every QSO my signal was difficult to copy. Many operators didn't let that delay them. They simply logged whatever they imagined my exchange was just so they could move on and work the next station. They will be penalized during log checking. It is better to say "sorry, no QSO, try again later" as good operators did. That works out better for both of us.
Well the log checking is now done and the results are published. It turns out I spoke too soon. The joke, it turns out, was also on me.

I did well enough to win Canada in the QRP single-operator all-bands (SOAB) category, but my score was reduced by errors more than I expected. The error rate was 2.9%, as compared to an error rate of 0.8% in last year's CQ WW CW contest. The score reduction is worse since in WPX contests most contacts are new multipliers. The error summary is below, directly copied from the LCR (log check report) I was sent. There are 454 claimed QSOs.

    2.9% Error Rate based on claimed and final qso counts
       0 (0.0%) duplicates (without penalty)
       3 (0.7%) calls copied incorrectly
       5 (1.1%) exchanges copied incorrectly
       5 (1.1%) not in log
       0 (0.0%) calls unique to this log only (not removed)

Perhaps half of the errors were due to my own sloppiness. These are mostly typos (e.g. transposition of letters and numbers) and failure to pay close attention (e.g. copying serial number 166 as 116). These errors can be improved with practice and concentration. My contest operating skills have degraded over 20 years of disuse. It didn't help that I was overly casual in my approach to a contest in which I didn't expect to do well. Those require no further discussion here.

The errors in the dreaded category "not in log" are the ones I want to delve into. What causes them and what can be done about them? Based on my recollection of those calls (LCR lists QSO info, which allows me to go back and look) and other behaviours I observed I can offer some tentative answers.

Operating QRP means that 95% to 99% of my contacts are S & P (search and pounce). That is, I scan the bands for stations that are sitting on one frequency and running QSOs. Calling CQ in a contest nets few results for a station like mine. QSOs rates are modest at best since time must be spent scanning the band for new stations and then having to waiting for an opportunity to call. Agility is required. It can also be quite fatiguing.

The primary objective of the running station is to achieve a high rate, which is typically measured as QSOs/hour. Super-stations with an attractive call sign in the early hours of a SSB contest can exceed rates of 250 QSOs/hour. For them time is of the essence. They are motivated to spend as little time as possible acquiring each QSO.

More so than in a CW contest my SNR (signal-to-noise ratio) at the other end of the QSO is poor. The other station often has to work hard to copy my call and exchange. This is something I remember well when I used to be in that position. However a big signal is not well-correlated with ability. Poor operators can grow impatient with weak callers, despite needing those points, which leads to sloppy practices.

The best contest operators will recognize when they need to move on and scratch the QSO. They will do so by saying something like "sorry, no QSO, please try later". Others scratch the QSO in less-desirable ways. They might say "73, QRZ?" or simply proceed to call CQ again. But they fail to actively confirm the QSO with you, such as by saying "got it, thanks, QRZ?"

There are operators that behave the same whether they logged the contact or not. So there is no definitive way to be sure that you ought to log the QSO. If they scratched the QSO and you log it they suffer no penalty but you do. First, you get that dreaded not in log error, and you then pass them over when you hear them later, possibly under better conditions.

While it may feel good to rail against the poor operating practices of others it is of no utility since we cannot control how they act. It is only our own behaviour we can control. If there is to be a solution it will have to come from the QRP operator himself/herself.

Here are a few suggestions that can help to lower the number of not in log errors for the QRP contester. They are not foolproof, but I have had some success with them.
  1. Don't push it in the early hours: The first 12 hours are the worst. Every station you hear is a new contact and the super-stations are running at high rates. Competition and QRM are fierce. If you call a station and are obviously being received poorly, even despite no other callers you can hear, just QSY. Do not waste time their time or yours. Trust me, you'll run across them later when the QRM is lighter and they are more desperate for the points you mean to them.
  2. Listen to the start of their next QSO: In contests with serial numbers, like CQ WPX, it can be worthwhile to stick around for 15 seconds after the end of a questionable QSO. The running station often has another QSO immediately after yours. If the serial number is not incremented you know that your QSO was not logged.
  3. Listen to the end of their next QSO: Obviously this takes a little longer. Listen whether the close of that next (and hopefully good) QSO is more definitive. If it is you ought to be suspicious. Log the QSO but make a side note, and proceed to the next point below.
  4. Deliberately dupe them: Later, when the opportunity is better, call the stations on your suspect list again. If they say "sorry, QSO before" then all is good. However if they work you then you'll know your suspicion was well founded. It's a rare contest nowadays where you are penalized for dupes. This may seem an underhanded trick to pull but I believe it is justified considering the (alleged) poor operating practices of some and the fact that rates for those running stations are much lower late in the contest. You aren't inconveniencing them all that much.
As operators of small contest stations we need all the help we can get. When it comes to not in log errors the larger stations have a distinct advantage over you. When they S & P they are unlikely to face anywhere near the same degree of difficulty being accurately copied.

When a larger station is running there is no risk to them of a not in log error. After all, their callers obviously copy them and, by the fact of their action alone, callers are ready, willing and able to log the QSO. You should see the obviousness of this every time you S & P a QSO; they are already in your log, duped and multiplier-checked, before you make your call to them.

Contesting with a small station can be fun but challenging. Those challenges are often quite different from what others face. Therefore the strategies must be different. It can be very rewarding to see those strategies bear fruit in your results when properly put into practice. Including a reduction or even elimination of not in log errors.

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