Friday, February 5, 2016

Personalization and the Multi-op Contester

In our own stations we all have a tendency to arrange and configure equipment as we like. There is no one else to please but ourselves. Put the display above or beside the transceiver? Do what you like. Set the keyer to iambic A or B? Do what you like. Selection and position of windows for your favourite logging program? Do what you like.

All this customization flies out the window the moment another ham sits down to operate. Their station ideal is very likely different from yours. There is the possibility of endless argument over which arrangement is better -- there are quantifiable differences -- but in the end it almost always comes down to personal preference. Arguments over what's right and what's wrong go nowhere, and stress friendships.

This approach of agreeing to disagree becomes difficult in a multi-op contest. There is one station and two or more opinions of how to set things up. I was strongly reminded of this truth when this past weekend in the CQ160 CW contest when I operated as part of a multi-op (VE2OJ) for the first time in 25 years. I like to pride myself on my flexibility, my ability to accommodate other station setups.

Accommodate is what I did since I was the newest team member. Yet there was lingering discomfort because I've become a little rigid, like most hams. I got by just fine other than a few small things that I could quickly adjust when I sat down to operate. Others could change these back just as easily, which they sometimes did. But I did leave a few things the way others like since that is a great way to experiment.

In this article I'll discuss some of the differences I found and explore arguments in favour of one arrangement versus another.

Centre of attention: rig versus screen

A common approach is to put the rig front and centre at the operating position. In modern contest stations with fully integrated rigs and computers this should be reconsidered. The best operators have already decided, and pushed the rig off to the side. Sometimes almost completely out of sight. It is a question I first pondered in this blog soon after my return to contesting. Later I discussed how I changed the arrangement for the better.

The difference is a simple one yet profound in its effects. In contests you are either running or hunting. When running the radio has little utility. Filters and RIT to tune in callers are accessible from the keyboard. Call sign and exchange entry involve only the screen and keyboard. When hunting, with assistance, the screen shows the spots and needed multipliers, which you (typically) click on with a mouse to QSY. All sending is by keyboard, microphone or paddles.

Only when hunting stations unassisted is the rig of more direct interest. In particular the VFO knob. Operating QRP I do more hunting than running than higher power participants. Even so I find that it is better to place to rig off to the side. It was easy to train myself to operate the rig with my left hand, type with both hands and send CW with the right hand. Give it a try. I'll think you'll like it.

With the rig up front your hands and clothing may brush the keyboard when reaching for and using rig controls. When the screen is above the rig the eyes can tire from constantly jumping up and down; in ergonomically designed computer desks (for general use) the screen is low, not high. Touch typists like myself can escape some of the effort of having to look up to a high screen, but not nearly enough.

Above is my current experiment with going SO2R QRP (the KX3 is only posing since it isn't connected to anything). The laptop screen is small for two entry windows, which I will eventually deal with. Some reaching around the mouse and paddles is required to reach the second radio. Since the operating table will remain as is for the time being I will have to be creative. However the screen and keyboard will remain at the centre.

Sinister effects

I am in the majority in that I am right handed. A mix of left and right handed operators in a multi-op can be awkward in a CW contest. The problem is the location of the paddles. Either have two sets of paddles or configure the operating position to allow rapid paddle placement during operator shift changes. Our left-handed operator made do with the paddles on the right, but that is unfair to him.

Operator profiles

N1MM Logger supports operator profiles. When you sit down you type Ctrl+O and enter your call. The QSOs you make are tagged with your identity, and can be used to configure the software to your personality. This may include small things such as screens and screen positions, and important ones such as messages in your own voice (SSB contests).

We experimented with profiles during the contest. This is something worth setting up before the contest: each operator sits down, makes desired adjustments and saves the profile. It may seem unimportant to customize the operating position this way, but it can make a difference over the course of 24 or 48 hours. For example, do you use iambic A or B keying? That was a popular item to switch when sitting down for one's shift. How about CW and CW-R (reverse)? Again, it's a small thing that can affect operator efficiency.

Logging software

We used N1MM Logger+ integrated with the WinKeyer and K3 transceiver. This is the same as my own station, other than the rig (mine came along as backup). This difference is mostly immaterial since N1MM abstracts rig functions so that they function the same for all rigs, provided the rig supports the function. This is valuable in a multi-op where each operator may have a different rig in their own station. It's the logging software (and other contest-related software) that is key, and everyone's familiarity with it.

In run mode some liked to tune stations by rig control, others by keyboard RIT and others by filter width and shift. N1MM is compatible with all of them. It is only important to reset or check settings when switching operators.

We had ESM enabled (enter sends message), though not everyone used it, or used it for only select situations. Happily N1MM mostly acts sensibly when function keys are used when ESM is enabled. Mistakes were made but were usually easy to correct during the (many) quiet times. The software can't read minds and so may not do what one expects. I use ESM almost exclusively in my home station, only reaching for the paddles and function keys to say hello to a friend or to struggle through a difficult QSO.

Receiving antenna

Serious low band operation benefits from one or more directional receive-only antennas. These may be magnetic loops, beverages, phased verticals, among other options. We had a beverage (BOG) towards Europe. It is necessary to select the antenna to receive on, as often as every QSO.

I hadn't given the problem much thought since I do not have a receive-only antenna at home. There are two distinct approaches: manually switch the receiver between the transmit antenna and the receive antenna; or, diversity reception, with one antenna for each receiver in the K3 (or similarly-featured rig). We used diversity with a balance control to adjust how much of each was fed to the headphones. Alternatively each receiver could be fed to each earpiece of stereo headphones.

I have not made up my mind which approach I prefer.

Be flexible

Running a team by consensus sounds nice in theory. Except that getting to consensus on every issue is time-consuming and often fails anyway. Recognize that personalization of the operating position cannot suit everyone all the time. Although I had an opinion on most everything I was always ready to modulate my expectations. This was a fun, social weekend, and that was paramount, not the final score.

Would I have arranged the operating position differently? Yes. This should be apparent from what I've written in this article. I could claim that with my contesting ability and experience that my views ought to be suitably weighted in the discussion. However that is not right since all team members should be equal.

It is better to use one's skills to make the best of the situation as presented. Arranging the station to my vision of what works best is not necessarily the best for others, and I am just one operator among many.

Indeed, flexibility should be in every contester's toolkit. Look upon inefficiencies as a challenge, the same as a geomagnetic storm or other external events. Being inflexible leads to conflict and animosity, not a better score.

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