When looking for problems, keep it simple

Last weekend I came down to participate in a 160 meter contest, and I couldn’t get my logging computer to work correctly. Every time I went to a drop down menu, the menu would go crazy, and it wouldn’t work. That makes setting up a new contest in the logging program very difficult.

I spend some time on this computer looking at foreign web sites for work, and I’ve run into some viruses before doing that. My first assumption was I had a virus. I ran scans from Norton and McCaffee, found a bunch of tracking cookies, but nothing that looked like a bad virus. I checked and I still had the problem.

By this time I’d killed a couple of hours, and my contest time was over for the evening. I briefly thought about substituting a laptop for the main computer, but gave up and went back upstairs instead.

I came down during the week a couple times and messed with the computer a little, and couldn’t find the problem.

There is another contest I’d like to run Saturday night, so Friday night I came down and got serious about getting station back on air with contest logging program. I first downloaded my master log file to a thumb drive, disassembled the big computer, moved everything around and set up the laptop. I fired up the laptop, copied the master log back to the laptop, and started the logging problem. I had the same problem with the laptop.

Had I infected the laptop with the same virus by simply copying the master log file? That didn’t make sense. I started running a virus scan and went to bed in disgust.

I came down this morning, and Norton had found 6 tracking cookies. I didn’t think the virus was my problem. I did a Google search for “drop down menu doesn’t work” and started looking at results. As usual I was reading through a lot of posts I didn’t understand, but then there was one that said, “it’s your mouse.”

I had switched the wireless mouse from the big computer to the laptop. I unplugged the mouse, and presto, the drop down menus worked. Then I looked at the mouse and the scroll wheel was pushed to the left and stuck — probably from the last time the cat knocked the mouse off the desk. I pushed the scroll wheel back into the right position, plugged the mouse in, and everything was fine.

So I turned around, unhooked the laptop, reassembled the main computer and plugged in my repaired mouse. Everything is fine.

The point — always look for the simple problem first. I was so quick to assume it was a software problem, that I didn’t even look at the hardware.

So why am I talking about computers on my ham radio blog. Because today the computer is an integral part of the station. I use it for logging, keying the transmitter during contest operation, scanning the band, and decoding calls on CW when I’m in full contest mode. The problem is that for every day operating, I feel lost without my log, which lives in the computer.

So what is a log? Back in the 60s when I got started in this hobby, the regulations stated that every amateur operator keep a log of their operation. You were to log every contact with time, frequency, and mode of operation.

The regulation to keep a log disappeared in the early 70s, but the practice has remained. It has progressed from paper logs, which didn’t really do you much good, to computerized logging programs. For every day operation I keep a log of every contact. That allows me to quickly see if I’ve talked to someone when I hear them on the band. It’s a good memory aid when a call sounds familiar.

For contests logging takes on an entirely different function. In contests, you can’t work stations multiple times on one band, or in many cases during the entire contest. Fast accurate logging is a must, and there are very sophisticated programs that take care of that. They also drive the keyer that keys the radio, so contest operation consists of sitting at the keyboard typing in calls and pushing buttons, with an occasional reach to the paddle or radio. So the computer is an integral part of that operation, and computer failure or glitch can ruin a contest weekend.

For everyday logging I use WinEQF. For contests I use N1MM, which is free to download and WriteLog, which requires a purchase. Both are very robust, full-featured logging programs.