Author Archives: radioartisan

Taking the Plunge

I’ve been considering getting a Raspberry Pi for awhile.  Several folks have asked me if I would port my Arduino Keyer code to it.  So I decided to take the plunge and acquire a Pi from Newark / Element 14, along with some “fixins”.  I got the Model A Pi, along with a WiFi dongle, and a cute little enclosure. IMG_4055

Big Things Come in Small Packages

I didn’t realize just how small the Pi was until I held one in my hand.  It’s just amazing this is a full blown computer.  It’s quite a leap from the VIC 20, the first computer I used 30 years ago as a teenager. IMG_4058

Raspbian Installation

The Raspberry Pi was surprisingly easy to fire up.  I bought a 16 GB SD card locally and burned a copy or Raspian on it.  After plumbing up a monitor to the HDMI port and connecting a USB keyboard and mouse, the unit booted right up, displaying messages familiar to anyone who runs Linux.  A few minutes later I entered startx and I was in XWindows.  Of course I just had to bring up a terminal window and verify this was really a ‘nix box and run top. IMG_4061

Nifty Little Pi Enclosure

Now that I have my Pi humming away, what projects should I do?  As I’ve mentioned a few folks have inquired about porting my keyer code to the Pi.  Googling around I found someone has ported the Wiring development platform , which is the basis for the Arduino environment, to the Raspberry Pi and aptly called it Wiring Pi.  Naturally it’s not 100% compatible and it’s not as easy as just plugging in the Arduino IDE and uploading compiled code.  I’m debating whether to take this approach of getting the keyer code to run under Wiring Pi, or just start from scratch with good old C and gcc for the compiler. I could get the core functionality going and then port over parts of the code from the Arduino for ancillary functions, if it makes sense.  Certain things don’t make sense to port, like the CW memories code.  On the Pi you don’t have to deal with EEPROM like you do on the Arduino.  Anything that needs to be persistent across reboots can just be written to a good old file on the file system.  While certain things like persistent memory and sound support are easier on a Pi, deterministic and precise timing, which is needed for CW timing, is challenging on a multi-tasking environment like Linux.  This realtime kernel may be just the ticket.

Compared to the Arduino, there aren’t a whole lot of interfacing pins on the Pi.  To really get the power of this board you need to do I2C.  I’m thinking about what it would take to port my antenna tuner to the Pi.  That project uses I2C for controlling many relays, but there is also a need to monitor the voltages of the SWR bridge.  The Pi doesn’t have this capability natively, so an I2C device would be needed to supply this functionality.

All in all the Raspberry Pi is a versatile and powerful little board.  To get my feet wet I think I’m going to write a little bare bones C and see if I can get a basic keyer working and see where this takes me.  This is going to be fun.

 

WRTC Radio and Software Data

wrtcThe World Radiosport Team Championship 2014 team has posted data on the radio equipment and software used by the teams.  There are a few interesting take-aways for me:

The top two radios used are no surprise, the Elecraft K3 by a wide margin at 64%, and the Yaesu FTdx5000 at 7%. The third choice surprisingly was the modest Kenwood TS-590 at 6% usage.  I’ve often thought this rig is one of the best in amateur radio today based on the price, features, performance, and value.  Despite Kenwood getting the number 3 spot with the TS-590, there was only one other Kenwood rig used, a single TS-850.  Ten Tec had a meager showing with two Orion II rigs.  Various other Icom and Yaesu rigs rounded out the statistics.  I find it sad that Kenwood doesn’t have more product offerings in these statistics.  The data suggests that there’s an opportunity in the market for another high performance $2.5K to $3K USD compact rig.

For software I expected the N1MM contest program to be the most popular choice, however Win-Test was used in 68% of the stations and N1MM garnered only 25% usage.  Perhaps it’s time I try Win-Test.  Despite the price of the N1MM program being attractive, the lack of source code for this freeware program has concerned me.  Win-Test costs 50 Euros or about $67 USD, however with the features listed it may be worth it.  There must be some “secret sauce” in the program that hardcore contesters like.

The Old Man

Hiram_Percy_Maxim2The several times I’ve read the writings of the Hiram Percy Maxim, I get the feeling I would have really liked this guy in real life.  I think a lot of his writings could be republished today with some minor editing of language and figures of speech that are no longer around, and the content and arguments would easily apply to current modern day situations and problems within amateur radio.  It’s amazing that as much as things change, things are still the same.

This article, Rotten Damped Spark Stuff, is a Maxim gem.  Considering Maxim’s feelings at the time about damped spark, I think Maxim would have been equally vocal during the AM versus SSB and code versus no-code test battles in favor of more progressive trends and technology in amateur radio.

Something interesting to note about the article, Maxim ends it with “So long and 73’s to the gang. “[emphasis added].  Any time a boob on the two US ham moron forums wants to argue about the inappropriate use of 73’s, quote this article and tell him to go away.

New Chapter

There’s no way to sugar coat this.  My marriage of nearly 21 years is over and my XYL and I are separating.  It’s been a rough past two months leading up to this (actually, come to think of it, maybe it’s been a rough few years), to the point where I’ve been physically ill thinking about everything from family to how will the grass at the house get mowed.  The emotions involved are overwhelming…. sadness, hurt, anger, hate, bitterness, uncertainty….relief…. But with every chapter that ends, a new one begins.

I’ve been house and building lot hunting, and getting an education on home owners’ associations, the bane of many a radio artisan.  I have a few good real estate prospects, one house in particular is ideal for an amateur radio QTH as it has a relatively high elevation, is wooded, has few other houses around, and I have information from a good source that the HOA is rather loosey-goosey.  It will be quite awhile until I can get a tower up again, so it’s back to basics with dipoles strung in trees.  Basics and simplicity appeal to me at this point in my life.  Now that I’m in my 40s and my daughter is heading to college next year I don’t need much of a house.  It seems most nice houses on the market here are just too big for me.  I’m looking at house plans in case I need to construct a home, as a “Plan B” option.  In any case I’ll probably settle on something that would normally be classified as a vacation cottage.

Despite the gut-wrenching situation with the marriage and my family, I’m looking forward to this transition and journey.  Outside of the mundane legal and administrative tasks that need to be completed and the grieving process with myself and the family, I’m somewhat excited about the transition.  While I’m losing a lot I’m gaining freedom and the opportunity to retool my life, simplify, be true to myself, and be happy.  Freedom and happiness have a lot of value, more value than material items.  My bucket list has expanded significantly and I plan to accomplish everything on the list these next 40 years.  I’m sure there will be a significant-other YL in my future after things settle down.  I hope to chronicle my journey here in the coming weeks and months.

Today I’m off from work, getting stuff done around the house and preparing for Field Day, one of my most favorite events of the year.  See you on the air this weekend!

Dayton! (Part 2)

(Continued from the previous article)

 

IMG_3712Where Da Hamfest At?

 

The AMSAT forum was overflowing with information.  At first I was hesitant to go to a three hour session.  While I could sit through long lectures in high school and college, as an adult I get impatient and restless anytime I’m forced to sit for extended periods of time.  But the AMSAT forum held my interest the whole time and afterwards I found my way to the AMSAT booth and became a member.

Another forum I attended was the Balloon Satellite / High Altitude Balloon (HAB) forum.  Many attendees were from organizations across the country who regularly launch balloons and there were many stories and words of wisdom.  I was a sponge soaking it up and came out of the session with dreams of launching a balloon.

As I mentioned in the first part of this article, I think the forums are a real gem at Dayton and well worth the admission price and travel costs.  They cultivate thought and interest in amateur radio.  The forums definitely recharged my amateur radio mojo.

The theme of the Dayton Hamvention this year was amateur radio operators as Makers.  Makers is a modern day term for those who build or homebrew stuff.  Some very visible Maker initiatives include Arduinos, Raspberry Pi, and 3D printing.

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Busy Folks at a Booth Selling Arduinos and Piece Parts

The Maker theme was a good idea, well intended and timely, however the execution of the theme was lacking.  There was only one stand selling Arduino items and another selling Raspberry Pis.  I saw only one 3D printer on display.  I think there should have been an area dedicated to Maker oriented booths, much like the audio area.  A friend commented that a Maker Space would have been a good addition to the hamfest.  The vendor selling Arduino items and parts has their booth swamped with people and most of them were noticeably younger folks.  Overall I think there needed to be more vendors that were identifiably Maker oriented and some bridge drawn between amateur radio and Maker initiatives.

I remember in the late 80s and early 90s when some amateurs scoffed at the invasion of computers into hamfests, as some regional hamfests were combination hamfests and computerfests.  Today you don’t really see this distinction and computers are just an integral part of amateur radio and hamfests.  Online I’ve seen some amateurs criticizing the Maker theme at the Hamvention.  I see a lot of parallels between the PC era and the Maker movement in progress right now.  I think we should embrace Makers in our hamfests.  We’ve already seen Arduinos and Raspberry Pis become useful tools, and 3D printers are probably close behind.  We need to make a bridge between Making and amateur radio.  As we’ve seen with computers and the Internet, communications takes things to new levels.  Radio communications equipment and know how are a valuable asset for aspiring Makers and we can draw new people into the hobby with this.

As far as toys that I acquired, besides various piece parts and cable I bought a new Rigol 100 Mhz digital oscilloscope.  At the Begali booth I fell in love with the Sculpture Mono paddle.  I reached for my credit card and was informed by the salesguy that they only accept cash or checks.  I was really put off by this.  Later that night I ordered the paddle on the web, at a cost $45 more than the hamfest price and some unknown amount of delivery time.  Luckily Begali was shipping recent paddle orders from Ohio so I didn’t wait long.

 

IMG_3730

Dayton Bounty: Rigol Digital Storage Oscilloscope

IMG_3737

The BMW of CW Keys

IMG_3768

My New Begali Paddle

If I had to do this trip over again, I would have spent much less time in the flea market and would have attended many more forums.  While the flea market was huge and had a lot of interested stuff, after awhile each stand and row began to look like the last one.  Unless you’re looking for some specific rare item, walking the flea market becomes tedious.  I also would have attended the DX dinner and perhaps hit some FDIM events.

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Special Entrance for Golf Players

Midway through the hamfest I commented that I wouldn’t attend in 2015 and perhaps might attend again in two or three years.  But towards the end and after taking the whole experience in, I decided I would make the pilgrimage again next year if possible.  Once you accept Hara Arena for what it is and the oddities and annoyances of many of the attendees, it’s truly a phenomenal event for radio artisans everywhere. As one of my friends I met aptly summed it up, you have to come out, it’s the Dayton Experience!

Dayton!

After 30 years of amateur radio, I finally got to attend the Dayton Hamvention this year.  It was quite an experience and I’m glad I made the long trip.

IMG_3705

YL Sporting a Tower Hairdo

First off, I have to say that KE9V’s Dayton Survival Guide is spot on.  I experienced most of what he wrote from hams expecting ADA parking spots without a reservation to repeater jerks to body odor in the crowded main arena.  Anyone attending Dayton for the first time should memorize this article prior to going.   The flea market was both impressive and a disappointment.  It’s big, really big, but the quality of wares for sale was in two extreme categories: junk and expensive good stuff.  Junk is junk and it’s what I was accustomed to seeing when going to local hamfests years ago.  The expensive stuff was mainly very nice vintage gear and amplifiers, lots of amplifiers.  There wasn’t much in between these two categories in my opinion.  I was surprised there were very few HF rigs from the past five years for sale.

IMG_3724

Assorted Crap

IMG_3720

Smell My Junk

IMG_3725

Merchandise or Canopy Anchor?

One Dayton ritual I avoided totally was using the outhouses.  The bathrooms within Hara Arena were malodorous enough and the lines and foot traffic within them resembled a rare DX phone pileup.

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 Next Stop: 80 Meters

Inside the arena, of the major HF equipment companies, Kenwood had the most impressive booth, which was spacious and carpeted, though lacking anything new that I could see.  Everyone crowded around the rig they can’t afford, the TS-990.  Icom and Yaesu had nice booths as well, but not nearly as spacious.  I eagerly went into the Yaesu booth searching for the rig that will replace the venerable but long in the tooth FT-817.  But disappointingly they had the 817 on display along side the FT-857 and FT-897.  The Elecraft booth was abuzz and continually crowded with a table of order takers on the side.  Elecraft could load up vending machines dispensing K3s or just deploy drones to deliver them to peoples’ vehicles outside.

IMG_3727

Walking in to the Main Arena

I was somewhat afraid to attend the Hamvention due to all the stories I heard about Hara Arena.  Initially the condition of the place was a bit depressing, however after awhile you come to accept it as part of the Dayton experience.  Every ceiling tile has water stains.  The ballroom area is a wormhole back into the 70s.  The bathrooms smell.  The parking lot pavement is crumbling to dust.  It’s Hara Arena.  Get used it.

IMG_3701

Hara

Let’s talk about the rental scooters.  {Warning: Politically incorrect material}  They were everywhere, and they were a big annoyance.  Now, if you are really handicapped and need a scooter to get around, I’m fine with that.  But I think many of the scooter users aren’t really handicapped.  Arguably many of them are just overweight due to their own bad health choices and could benefit from the exercise and less trips to the concession area.  Scooter jams were a frequent occurrence and everywhere you went you were either stuck behind one, had one at your heals, or had to yield to them so they could maneuver.  Several scooter operators were like drunk drivers, especially out in the flea market area.  If I never saw a scooter again, I would be a happy man.

The food was better than what I was expecting.  Both days I ate pizza and actually enjoyed it, which is surprising as I’m a northeastern pizza snob.  Out in the flea market there were vendors grilling beef, hot dogs, and chicken and across from the Hamvention there was a cool little barbeque stand run by a rather friendly dude.  (Next time I’m getting a smoked salmon dinner from this stand.)

 

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Yum Yum: Rib-N-It Bar-B-Q

The indoor exhibits were well worth the trip.  The major equipment manufacturers and organizations were all there, with one notable exception being AES.  I was told AES wasn’t there last year either.  It’s really disappointing that such a major vendor doesn’t support this event, the largest hamfest in North America.  This may make me reconsider using AES in the future and perhaps switch to HRO or DX Engineering.

I found the real crown jewel of Dayton to be the forums.  I attended two forums, but I wanted to attend several more and plan to on the next pilgrimage to Dayton.

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Standing Room Only in the AMSAT Forum

 

(To be continued….)

That Frequency

We’ve all come across that frequency.  You know the one I mean.  People on there all hours of the day and night saying and doing nasty things.  It’s been going on for a long time and no one in any regulatory agency seems to do anything about it.  There are websites devoted to that frequency and the people who are on it.  People post things on Facebook and those two websites here in the US about it all the time.  New radio amateurs ask about it and wonder what it’s about.  Old ones complain about it or get outraged.  Some amateurs laugh about it.  Various people theorize about the mental health of the participants on that frequency.  Some waste hours of their lives listening to it, many trying to figure out who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.  Some people have wasted months and years out of their pathetic, useless lives making that frequency what it is.

Here’s the kicker.  There are no good guys on this frequency.  None.  Not one of them.  Especially not the ones who claim they are against the bad guys and are merely trying to make the frequency better by contending with the so-called bad guys.  Even you, listening there.  Perhaps you just listen, or maybe you decide to fire up your linear amp and drop a carrier in there for a while, perhaps to punish them, maybe just to stir the pot, or give yourself a chuckle.  Acknowledge it.  You’ve done it.

No government agency is going to fix that frequency, or perhaps better worded, fix or punish those people on that frequency.  You’re not going to stop what’s been going on, not directly, at least.  Here’s what you, me, and everyone with a brain can do to fix this problem: stop listening to it, stop talking about it, don’t even acknowledge it.  From this day forward, that frequency doesn’t exist.  If you see someone posting about that frequency on a social media website or an amateur radio forum, you say we don’t talk about that.  If someone mentions it on the air in a QSO, in a roundtable, or on a net, talk about something else, like the weather.  That frequency is what it is because we listen to it and we talk about it.  We have the power to make it whither and die.

Incentives and Licensing

Jeff Davis, KE9V, wrote in his weekly letter, Quintessence, about something we’ve all heard on the air, the roundtable discussing and lamenting about those who are not real hams.  He posits this is one unintended consequence of incentive licensing, where new amateurs tend to stay on repeaters and not upgrade to acquire HF band privileges, creating this us and them mentality.  Newbies will always be on repeaters and the real hams are on HF.

Incentive licensing was introduced in 1964 by the ARRL and FCC.  I got my ticket as a teenager in 1984, but I don’t recall hearing the term incentive licensing or angst about it until perhaps ten years ago.  It never really occurred to me that there was something before incentive licensing in amateur radio.  It was always what I knew amateur radio to be, even when I was a budding radio artisan in the 70s.  License classes were an integral part of amateur radio, much like color television is in every living room today.

The original motivation behind incentive licensing was to get amateurs to increase their knowledge and skill.  While in theory it makes sense, in practice I don’t think it’s been very effective.  Today you can find Extras who are, well, quite simply, numbskulls.  While the exams can test for specific isolated technical tidbits, they never were able to test for operating skills, uncover deep understanding of topics, or examine practical skills like soldering a connnector.  Some would argue the CW exam tested for operating skill, but in reality it didn’t.  It tested operators copying CW for a certain period of time but didn’t really test whether they could copy weak signals, send code, or have a QSO.  It certainly didn’t test whether they were proficient operators or good and wholesome people.  A review of FCC enforcement actions and on air monitoring in which violators and LIDs most often are code tested Extras provides empirical evidence that exams and incentive licensing aren’t always effective at determining good operators or weeding out those guys.

Over the years I’ve found that license class has little to do with the technical proficiency of amateurs.  The biggest factor I’ve found has been professional experience and formal education.  The most technically astute amateurs are, ironically, professionals in telecommunications, electronics, and engineering.  Often these folks have access to equipment and resources that let them expand their knowledge, and amateur radio is a secondary technical endeavor.  The best of these folks seed the rest of the amateur radio community with technical know how.

Personally I’ve found passing amateur radio exams to be trivial.  While I’m a telecommunications professional with some schooling in electronics, I’ve thought tests were fairly easy to pass with just simple question memorization and very little, if any, technical study.  I’m not saying I didn’t know the material.  I could draw a bipolar transistor amplifier circuit from memory and do the calculations on a whiteboard or explain modulation.  Passing a test was merely an inconvenient formality.  Advancing my knowledge and skills in amateur radio has never been driven by a test or advancing in license class, like the original intent of incentive licensing.  It certainly wasn’t driven by getting an extra 20 kHz of space on 20 meters at the time.  Increasing knowledge has been triggered by my interests.  I really got into CW when I saw others using it and saw how quickly and efficiently QSOs could be had, not because I had to pass a 20 WPM test.  I took up rig building when I saw others making simple rigs from 2N2222s and it seemed cool.  I’m exploring satellites now because I find relaying a radio signal through a little box orbiting the Earth intriguing.

If incentive licensing isn’t really motivating amateurs to learn more and increase their skills, what purpose does it serve, other than supporting a needless hierarchy, one implemented back when post-war middle-agers and old codgers were bucking free love and turn on, tune in, drop out?  I think incentive licensing in the US has outlived its usefulness, and it’s perhaps time to eliminate it — one test and license class to rule them all.  What is the worst that could happen, someone new won’t be destined for that local repeater and its accompanying unfair stereotypes, and will instead make a QSO on HF, perhaps get interested in CW, build a rig, and then work through satellites or do moonbounce…and become… the proverbial real ham?  

ARRL Is Right

ARRL published an article, ARRL Calls for Timely, Visible, FCC Amateur Radio Enforcement , on April Fool’s Day.  Initially I was expecting it to be an April Fool’s joke, but it’s not.  I think ARRL is spot on.  Despite two recent cases that I can recall where amateurs relinquished their licenses or had significant fines imposed, FCC enforcement has been rather quiet since Riley Hollingsworth retired in 2009.  Remember who took his place?  I had to Google it to remember.  That’s not good.

Converted

About two months ago while I was on a business trip, my wife’s computer started to go on the fritz.  Immediately when she told me of the problem I knew what it was as her parents have the same model all-in-one Dell and it experienced the same problem six months ago.  They went through five service calls to get it fixed correctly.  The video display becomes bright and washed out, to the point where most text is unreadable and you can’t adjust the display to make it right.

For a few months I had casually been playing with a Macbook Air at work, mainly for a secondary computer.  I had vowed to family members that my days of supporting Windows for relatives is over due to the release of Windows 8 and my frustration with dealing with many of the same recurring problems of viruses and instability after 20 years of evolution of the product.  I decided to buy my wife an Apple iMac and go into uncharted territory.

We went to the Apple store Saturday morning after I got back from my trip.  We were greeted by a friendly sales guy, Steve.  He introduced himself and started getting to know us, what we do, where we live, and how much experience we had with computers.  The conversation turned to Steve Jobs and we talked about how much of a hand he had in the design of the store, right down to the selection of the floor tile and the front glass.  I usually despise conversations with salespeople at electronics stores, but this was actually quite enjoyable.

After I asked some questions about the models and capabilities, I told him the iMac model we’d like to get.  He made some taps on a little iPhone-like device and about 40 seconds later a girl popped out a hidden door in the back.  The stores are designed much like Mac laptops with hinges hidden so you can’t really tell where the door to the back area is.  She brought a box containing our iMac right where were standing.  I gave the sales guy my credit card and he used the same little device to scan the card.  “Would you like an email receipt, no paper?”  he asks.  “Sure” I reply.   I figure this is probably the end of the transaction and our visit, but he carried the computer box over to a table and stared taking it out.  This area is where customers get aquatinted and assisted with new purchases.  Steve hooked everything up and instructed us on various elements of the user interface and the major applications.  We stayed for awhile getting familiar with the iMac and after we were done, someone boxed up our machine, careful to pack it up just as it came from the factory.  We walked out the door with a box and a bag of accessories and surprisingly, no paperwork.  I’m actually sad to leave as I wanted to stay and play around with the machine more and perhaps buy some more stuff.

A few weeks passed.  My wife is doing fairly well with the iMac.  There are naturally some differences with the user interface when coming from Windows, but for the most part she’s getting through them.  I no longer hear complaints about slowness, locked applications, or how she had to do a periodic reboot again to clean things out.

I switched to a new Lenovo laptop last year after my Dell laptop display went bad.  I reformatted it entirely for Linux.  Linux was working well, and I was running Windows in a virtual machine to handle one contesting application and a few programs for my Kenwood TS-590 that only run on Windows.  The Lenovo was mediocre in my opinion.  The keyboard flexed when typing and the touchpad required way too much force to click, to the point where it fatigued my borderline carpal tunnel syndrome IT professional hands.  I struggled with wireless Linux drivers and USB operation was often an adventure.  I decided to bite the bullet and order a Macbook Pro.

macbookThe Macbook arrived about a week later.  The Retina display is amazing, though now when I look at other lower resolution displays I perceive pixels.  Transferring files over was fairly easy and I even copied the Windows virtual machine over from my old Linux box and ran it with no problems.  In full screen mode it’s funny because it runs quite nicely and acts like a native Windows operating system installation.  I later created another virtual machine and installed Linux Mint 15 on it so I could run CQRLog.  So, I have three operating systems in one.

As much as I wanted to blog about how I’ve been using Linux successfully for a year in my shack, I’m really pleased with the Mac and I think I’ve been permanently converted.  The beauty of the Mac operating system, OSX, is that it’s Unix under the hood.  It looks simple on the surface but you can dive down into the complexity if you like.  You can bring up a shell prompt, install packages, create cron jobs, etc., basically most of the stuff you do in Linux.  A lot of the open source software out there compiles for OSX.  I attempted to recompile CQRLog for OSX but was unsuccessful.  I think completing this will require some additional coding in Lazarus Object Pascal to customize a version for OSX, but it’s doable.  All in all I think you get the best of both worlds with a very user friendly interface and a Unix core.

People often complain about the cost of Apple products, especially when comparing Android devices and iPhones, but I think what one really needs to focus on is value, quality, and user experience.  There’s a level of attention to detail with Apple that you just don’t often find in other products, especially when it comes to brown box computer purchases from your local retail outlet or mail order ecommerce vendor.  Of particular interest to radio artisans, the Macbook Pro has one thing you rarely find in laptops these days — an aluminum body.  I’m curious how well the laptop performs in a high RF environment as I had problems with the USB ports resetting on the Lenovo when running 100 watts on HF.

Considering Microsoft’s insistence on discontinuing support for Windows XP, its stopping shipments of 7, the issues with Windows 8, and the maturity and popularity of alternatives, it’s a good time to convert to Linux or Mac.

Are American Amateurs Different?

I’ve noticed two things in recent years, and I’m not sure if it’s just me or I’m really on to something different with American radio amateurs.  The first observation is that there seems to be more “homebrewing” or construction of equipment outside of the US.  This isn’t to say there isn’t homebrewing within the US, far from it.  Obviously there is an active and vibrant QRP community in the US.  But as a general trend, there seems to me to be more equipment construction and “rolling your own” in other countries.  I’ve noticed with the number of inquires and feedback emails I receive for my open source amateur radio hardware projects, foreign amateurs outnumber US amateurs by a ratio of 10 to 1.  Most are in Europe, however I’ve heard from amateurs in India, Japan, Australia, and other countries outside of Europe.  I think US amateurs spend a lot of money on the hobby, but there seems to be more of a buy it and operate mentality where DX amateurs tend to be more frugal and more apt to construct things.

My second observation is that US amateurs seem more down about the future of amateur radio, in general, than foreign counterparts.  US amateurs tend to complain about the state of the hobby, ARRL, the FCC, code tests, incentive licensing, young people, etc.  US amateurs tend to be more negative online.  They’re much more apt to bring up partisan politics in QSOs and online, and they often make mental leaps connecting the perceived decline of amateur radio and the social and political climate in the US.

These are just observations, and I have no scientific data to back this up.  I’m especially curious about what radio amateurs outside of the US observe with those in their countries. Is the US unique in some regard with attitudes about amateur radio?  Do you feel there’s more low-level technical experimentation outside the US?  Is this all just my perception and not reality?

The Minima

There are dozens of QRP rig designs and new kits that pop up each year, the majority of which are reiterations of previous designs.  For the past ten years it seems we’ve been in a bit of a rut building NE602 based direct conversion and superhet rigs.  But once in awhile a groundbreaking design is released, and everyone follows.  Rigs like this are truly memorable, like the W7ZOI Ugly Weekender, the NEophyte, the Norcal 40, the 2N2/40, and the K2.  I think the Minima, a new transceiver designed by Ashhar Farhan is one such design.  The design has really impressive and innovative features:

  • 1 to 30 Mhz coverage
  • CW and SSB operation
  • Si570 DDS local oscillator
  • 20 Mhz IF
  • KISS Mixer
  • Arduino controlled, with open source software
  • Other than a few ICs, most of the active components are general purpose NPN and PNP transistors
  • A relatively simple and reproducible design

Looking at the schematic, you can see immediately how unique it is starting at the front end.  From the antenna jack, you go into a high pass or low pass filter and then hit a mixer with two FETs.  After that is an IF amplifier constructed from bipolar transistors, a BFO mixer and then the audio chain, again built from bipolar transistors.  The transmitter chain works essentially the same, in reverse, with the mixer as the final active stage and providing a one watt output.

I’ve been eager to build something ugly style on a sheet of copper clad PC board, and this is just the ticket.  And it’s Arduino controlled which is icing on the cake!

Pileup

Last night after I had enough of writing software code I decided to turn on 160 meters.  There was a contest going on, the CQ 160 meter CW contest.  I like 160 meter contests for some reason.  There’s something just a bit different about them.  I have a decent, though modest antenna, an inverted L running about 30 feet vertically and 65 feet horizontally, with a six foot long loading coil on a piece of 1.5 inch PVC pipe.  I have only eight or so radials, short by this band’s standards, but the antenna works rather well.  My experiences with this antenna lead me to believe that a lot of people could do 160 meters if they just attempted to build an antenna like this, even on space-challenged lots. The antenna I have could fit in a quarter acre property.  But I digress.

I turned on 160 and got my contest program going.  I did the usual search-and-pounce starting from the bottom of the band and worked my way up.  It was like shooting fish in a barrel, and I was starting to get bored with it.  What the heck, let’s park somewhere and call CQ.  I worked a few stations in the next 10 minutes and then it was like someone opened the floodgates.  I had three, four, or five guys calling me each round.  Amazingly I was able to pluck stations out of the pileup most of the time with no problem.  This was going on for what seemed like an eternity.  I started watching my rate meter and it hit 258 QSOs per hour at the peak and later settled down to around 150.  This went on for about 45 minutes.  I was in shock over the number of stations and how it was just relentless, but somehow I just went into overdrive and commanded the frequency.  I’m not rare DX and I don’t have a super big signal on this band, but it was like everyone wanted me.  The pileup started to subside and settled down to a few QSOs here and there and I was getting tired from a long day.  I wished I had planned to make a serious effort in this contest; it probably would have been fun to start rested up right at dark when the band opened and work the band until the wee hours of the morning, maybe even attempting to crank up the CW speed up a bit.

All in all, I was really pleased with my performance with this unexpected pileup.  Recently I have been training with Morse Runner while on business trips, mainly to break up the monotony of long flights.  I can tell this practice has made a difference in my ability to manage pileups, pick out stations from the chaos, and rack up the QSOs.  This could get interesting.

Frankenrotator

I have published a page on my Frankenrotator project, a cheap homebrew azimuth and elevation rotation system using a Yaesu rotator mated with a Radio Shack TV rotator.  The brain of the unit is an Arduino Mega and complete schematics are provided.

IMG_2994

The project illustrates how to build a power supply for both DC and AC rotators, replacing commercial rotator controllers.  The main control unit powers and controls both rotators and interfaces to a computer using the Arduino native USB port.  Logging and control programs command the system via Yaesu GS-232B emulation.  The project also demonstrates the use of a remote slave microcontroller.  A small waterproof box located at the rotator senses azimuth and elevation.  The remote microcontroller is periodically queried by the master unit via a serial link.

I still have to build some antennas to rotate with this system, which I hope to complete before winter sets in here in Pennsylvania.  Hopefully I’ll get to chase some satellites in between ice fishing!

Callbook Wars

Last year QRZ.com made accusations that callsign database sites HamQTH.com and QRZCQ.com stole QRZ callbook data, citing planted fake callsigns in the QRZ database appearing in their databases.  Both HamQTH and QRZCQ denied the claims.  QRZ appears to have recently upped the ante, having contacted at least one software developer, N3FJP, requesting him to remove HamQTH support from his logging program, claiming “Programs that facilitate the use of HamQTH.com are, in legal terms, are participating in “contributory infringement.”  HamQTH on Facebook continues to deny copying QRZ data, though it’s been noted that the site accepts publicly submitted data, so the possibility of QRZ lifted data exists.  HamQTH founder, Petr, OK2CQR, in a Facebook post quoted from a private email exchange QRZ founder Fred AA7BQ, “Your service does not offer anything to the amateur radio community that isn’t available elsewhere, which makes you a parasite, enjoying the benefits of the hard work of others.”  The comment struck me as ironic as Petr has no advertising on the HamQTH website and he also contributes to the community the free CQRLog logging program, which is open source software.  To people who know what Petr has done, he is hardly a parasite.  QRZ, on the other hand, generates revenue by hosting content others write.

Several times I have run comparison queries between QRZ and HamQTH and have yet to find any unique QRZ data in HamQTH query results.  I’m not saying QRZ data doesn’t exist in HamQTH, it’s just that I haven’t found it and I haven’t seen evidence that the copying, if it occurred, is prevalent.  On the Facebook thread it was mentioned that email addresses have appeared in HamQTH profiles that may have come from QRZ.

After the claims by QRZ last year, the QRZ callbook listings for HamQTH founder OK2CQR (1) and QRZCQ founder DO5SSB disappeared.  DK5TX claims his QRZ profile was repeated edited without his knowledge when he linked to his HamQTH profile page.  (OK2CQR’s QRZ callbook entry reappeared a few days ago.)

While I should be concerned about copyright infringement, I have difficulty siding with QRZ in this dispute.  The information in QRZ is mostly information in the public domain and user contributed profile information was created by users, not QRZ personnel, though they created the system to store it and charge for XML access.  Email addresses of active radio amateurs can be easily harvested on the Internet by anyone and collected in a database.  Furthermore, I find the alleged QRZ manipulation of database data in retaliation disturbing.  As I indirectly attempted to illustrate in this satire piece earlier this year, QRZ is considered the de facto amateur radio callbook these days, and essentially has a monopoly.  QRZ’s dominant position dates back to the times when government agency radio amateur database data was difficult to acquire and process, before the Internet became mainstream and online query tools to government data became commonplace.  With this monopoly comes a responsibility, beyond generating paychecks for employees, but a responsibility to the community.  In my opinion it’s time to get this data in more open databases, and on sites that are not concerned with web clicks and revenue or those that host forums with often vitriolic exchanges that do not reflect well on amateur radio.

(1) http://hamqth.com/news.php, Posting from 20 June 2012

Freeware

Ham Radio Deluxe has announced that the final free version of HRD will be removed from their servers September 1, 2013.  After the HRD freeware product was sold by its author, it was converted to a commercial software product.  The current owner, W4PC, has stated that the freeware 5.x version will continue to be free, however they will no longer host the files for download and there will be no further development on the 5.x version.  Others may host the files for download free of charge.

I hate to keep sounding like a broken record, but the situation with HRD, and in particular with the 5.x freeware version, illustrates just why freeware is a problematic software model and ultimately a technological dead end for a hobby like amateur radio.  Luckily with HRD, development is continuing with the commercial product.

Do you use other freeware amateur radio programs?  Ask your favorite program authors if they would consider open sourcing their software.  If they don’t, ask them why not and what do they have to lose.

Hiram’s Father

There’s an interesting BBC article involving Hiram Stevens Maxim, the father of Hiram Percy Maxim who was the founder of ARRL and a mover and shaker in the nascent world of wireless back in the early 20th century.  Both Hiram junior and senior were inventors.  Hiram senior invented several items but was known most for the Maxim machine gun, the first portable firearm of its kind.  Outside of the radio work we know him for, Hiram Percy Maxim also invented a silencer for firearms and what was essentially a muffler for car exhaust systems.

A contemporary firearms engineer and inventor in Europe named William Cantelo mysteriously disappeared in the 1880s when he went on a road show to sell his new invention to investors and manufacturers, a repeating firearm.  Cantelo, his body, or evidence of foul play was never found, however rumors of him being in America were circulated.

To add to the mystery, the resemblance between Hiram Stevens Maxim and William Cantelo is quite striking.  The similarities in appearance along with their common talents in firearm inventions led to claims that Maxim was really Cantelo.  This has never been proven, and it’s been written that Hiram Stevens Maxim was not interested in engaging the Cantelo family’s questions about his identity.

The Mystery of the Vanishing Gun Inventor

KQ?

wtf-catDid you ever hear a DX station calling KQ, all stuck together like a prosign, instead of calling CQ?  I’ve heard this several times in recent years and I’ve wondered what’s up with that.  Is it too difficult to throw the extra dit in there?

But I digress….

Homebrew Engine

Here’s a cool little video from HowToLou.com (I’m guessing this guy is named Lou) with a third prototype of a homemade engine made strictly from hardware store parts.  It’s not quite working yet, but it’s rather interesting and I think he’s on the right track.

I’m more electronically inclined than mechanical and have some ideas on how to make the timing of the spark and the exhaust valve better, using electronics.  But I probably couldn’t do it with just hardware store parts, unless perhaps the hardware store sells radios that I can scrounge parts from.

One of these homebrew engines coupled with a homebrew generator connected to a QRP rig would make a nifty little project to show at your local ham club or field day.

Your Own Drone?

The Drone It Yourself is a kit to take ordinary objects and turn them into flying remote-controlled drones.  The concept is simple: clamp four electric motors with propellers and a control unit onto whatever object you desire, and fly it around the neighborhood.

While it may be fun to terrorize the XYL or spy on the neighbors with this, I see this possibly having some useful real life applications in amateur radio.  I’m not sure of what kind of battery life this unit has, but imagine hovering a remote controlled HT at 80 feet for an ad hoc repeater.

A guy could really get into some trouble with one of these :-)

Encryption Is Already Legal, It’s the Intention That’s Not

Fresh from the Unless You’ve Been Living In a Cave, You’ve Heard of This department, there’s been much ado over the FCC Petition for Rulemaking seeking encryption for emergency communications.  I won’t go into the details of the petition as you can read that several places elsewhere.  Technically encryption on amateur radio bands is illegal.  However, in reality the FCC has been letting it happen for years and the ARRL has turned a blind eye to it.  D-STAR uses a proprietary vocoder that takes an analog voice signal and converts it into a data bitstream.  The algorithm isn’t publicly documented and you can’t decrypt it, unless you buy a proprietary chip.

Some may quote § 97.309 (4)(b) which basically says one can transmit an “unspecified digital code” as long as the digital code is not intended to obscure the meaning of the communication.  Presumably the people who created and use D-STAR don’t intend to obscure the meaning of the communication, so perhaps it is within the law.

So, say I create a new digital communication mode.  It features a compression algorithm and I just happen to XOR the data stream with a 10 million bit pseudorandom bitstream to randomize it so a long stream of zeros or ones won’t screw up a modulator.  I document the algorithm and the 10 million bit key on some corner of the Internet.  It’s technically publicly documented, but in practice no one will go to the trouble of attempting to build a decoder.  I’ve achieved encryption in a roundabout way.  Whether my intentions were to obscure the meaning of the communications or make a modulator-friendly bitstream is anyone’s guess.  But with the inaction over the D-STAR vocoder and the wording of § 97.309 (4)(b), intention rules the day.  So while this debate over the petition is being framed in a discussion of encryption, it’s really the intent to obscure communications that’s at the heart of this.

I don’t have a horse in this emcomm race, but I’m not in favor of allowing obscuring messaging.  If the FCC does allow it, others are going to want to use it for their noble causes, like preppers under the guise of “homeland security”.

(D-STAR is a registered trademark of Icom, Inc.)

Project Loon

Google has announced Project Loon, an experiment to use balloons aloft at about 60,000 feet / 20 km to provide broadband wireless Internet service to the hinterlands.  The Loon moniker is somewhat of an admission that the project is a bit crazy and a play on the word balloon, but it does have a sound technological foundation.  The technology is much cheaper than satellites and naturally easier to launch.

projectloon

The experiment is beginning this month with the launch of a handful of balloons from New Zealand which will orbit about the 40th parallel and navigate around New Zealand using varying direction and magnitude air currents at various levels.  Beta testers have been selected in New Zealand to try out the system.

The idea of using aircraft to provide wireless services isn’t new, and radio amateurs have been launching experimental balloons with radios for quite awhile although recently there has been an upshot in interest.  Google is known for using open source software and contributing open source technology back to the community.  I’m curious if Google will open source the hardware, perhaps enabling amateur radio to benefit with its own balloon network similar to this someday.  Current typical amateur radio balloon missions last only a few days.  Having several balloons aloft could perhaps be an alternative to satellites which are becoming increasingly expensive and difficult to launch.

The Project Loon site has a nice video detailing the project here.