Sunday, October 9, 2016

Two Approaches to Penalizing Contest Log Errors

The title of this article of long since it can take some description to explain a simple dilemma. Which is who to penalize when one operator in a contest QSO makes a mistake? Sounds simple, yet therein lies an interesting dilemma.

I was forcefully reminded of this when I recently received my log report (UBN) for the RDXC CW 2015, and by internet discussions of some frustrated contesters. For those who do not enter contests -- or at least do not contest very seriously -- this may be no more than a curiosity. Dedicated contesters have good reason to care.

First, a brief explanation of the two penalty schemes.

A) Penalize the operator who makes a mistake

Let's say I call and work XX9YY. I log the call and the sent exchange. The exchange is contest specific. It can as simple as a report and a zone such as in CQ WW. More complex are exchanges with serial numbers. Far more complex is the exchange in ARRL Sweepstakes, or the QTC system in WAE.

The chance for errors is greater with more complex exchanges yet even simple exchanges can create many errors by operators who become careless. For example, not really listening and just letting the logging software fill the log fields.

So if you are a K5 operating in California and I log zone 4 instead of the zone 3 you sent I see my score reduced by the erasure of the QSO and a further penalty. If I copy your call sign wrong you may never know because in S&P operating (typically for QRP contesters like myself) it is common practice not to send the other station's call. If I don't send it he can't correct my error.

That's really all there is to it. I get the penalty while the other operator in the QSO is not, assuming that he copied my call and exchange correctly.

B) Penalize both operators when one (or both) makes a mistake

In contests like RDXC it is the responsibility of both operators to correctly copy the sent call and exchange and to ensure that the other operator correctly copied their sent call sign and exchange. If either operator makes an error the QSO points are erased for both operators. A further penalty may be assessed.

It is therefore incumbent on all contest participants to transmit a clean signal and send the call sign and exchange in a manner to ensure they are correctly logged by the other operator. Ideally this results in better operating practice by everyone. Although it can also slow rates it does so for everyone.

Regrettably the ideal is not consistently achieved in practice.

Rules modify operator behaviour

Rules can improve operator behaviour but cannot entirely eliminate common problems. They can even cause new problems, perhaps ones that are unanticipated by the contest sponsors. Competitive operators want to win and will exploit the rules to maximize their results, and do so while staying within the rules. There are always ways to find advantages despite the intent of any rules.

The common theme is twofold for the competitive operator:
  1. Maximize points
  2. Minimize penalties
Let's look deeper at these imperatives in the context of both penalty regimes, focussing on the operator behaviours they induce. Both have pros and cons.

The majority of contests use scheme A. This engenders poor operating behaviour by a relatively small number of big guns and those offering a rare multiplier. They see every incentive to send quickly and loudly to maximize rate when running with little regard to the other operator's attempt to log the QSO accurately. After all, if the caller makes an error they are the one penalized, not the running station. Thus we see the following from some:
  • Very fast CW speed (35+ wpm), or fast talking on SSB
  • Infrequent identifying
  • Not correcting obvious errors in the other station's copying of their call or exchange
  • Distorted transmission: over-modulation or compression, chopped code elements, etc.
Some contest sponsors are taking steps against these poor behaviours, though for the most part the perpetrators get away with it. My opinion is that this is unethical operating since it often negatively impacts the score of other contest participants. Pursuit of a high score is not an acceptable excuse.

With scheme B the dynamic changes, and therefore the behaviour of contest participants. Speeds slow and identification becomes more frequent. There is an added incentive to elicit confirmation of correct copying. Distortion only slows the QSO so gain controls get dialled down.

So far so good. However it is not all roses. When doubt creeps into an operator's thoughts about whether the other station did indeed copy everything correctly there is a chance, sometimes a good chance, that they'll silently wipe the QSO. When that happens the other unsuspecting operator receives an NIL penalty (not in log). The one wiping the QSO loses the points but avoid the risk of a penalty.

All it takes is sufficient doubt (a subjective choice) to result in penalties for other participants. Unlike in scheme A this is not a matter of unethical operating, merely a fear of penalties. Whether that fear is rational is difficult to say.

Which is better?

I have no firm view on this matter. Any rule has its loopholes and downsides. The clever operator will find them and then modify their behaviour for maximum advantage. The unethical operator will only focus on their advantage and not the impact their choices have on other contest participants.

I was at first favourably disposed toward scheme B when I first learned about it. I am less sure now that I've experienced its problems. Nevertheless it is an interesting experiment that is worth wider adoption to see how it plays out in larger contests. Since tradition has great momentum I don't expect this to happen any time soon.

I suspect that one's opinion correlates well with primary operating style: run vs. S & P. Self interest is a powerful motivator. Even my own view may change as I transition from QRP to QRO contesting, and therefore more running.

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