Tuesday, December 26, 2017

2017's Greatest Hits

Hmm, still a few days to go in 2017, but I don't think there's much else blog-worthy happening this year, so off we go with this year's Greatest Hits.  Of course the list is a little short this year, having resumed blogging in May.  So here's my pick for the best of each month, plus one special mention.
Heinlein Biography, Vol 2: The Man Who Learned Better, 1948-1988  You already know if you should read this book.
Florida Trail Article  It's not the AT.  For me, it looks even better.  It goes right through Area X, whatcanpossiblygowrong?
About that Late-Night Paranormal Radio Stuff  Cue the Theremin music.
SARNET-FL Talk all over the state with a $13 handheld?  You bet!  Just get licensed up first.
Strong Passwords  If you use a computer (i.e., you're reading this), you really should take a look.
Jurassic Duck Mk II 2m Antenna  Makes that handheld radio roar like a dinosaur. 
Artemis review  Andy "The Martian" Weir's second book.
Quick & Dirty Guide to getting that ham license, for people with technical backgrounds
and a Special Mention from August, Two Podcasts to Note, Philosophize This! (philosophy, duh) and The First 40 Miles (backpacking for beginners, or people who want to keep having fun like a beginner).

Well, there are still a few days left in 2017, and so you may see a few foggy pictures of seawall CX rides yet.  I still need to write up some impressions about that new-to-me FT-817nd radio, but that'll probably wait until January (sneak preview: it's a lot like the FT-857d, but with field gear it comes in at 1/3rd the weight).  Won't really get back into the woods, either on foot or bike, until after mid-January, so those sorts of adventures are on the back burner for the moment.  In the meantime, try to stay safe, and maybe use the winter weather as an excuse to catch up on reading, soldering, or changing out drivetrain components.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

The Christmas Comet Returns!

Merry Christmas all!


Somehow over coffee yesterday evening, the subject of Kyrgyzstan came up.  Here are some interesting links showing off the country:
Adding the description "unusual" is probably redundant on that last one.

Looks interesting, but on the whole I'd rather just visit Colorado again.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

That's nice. But what's it good for?

With the advent of inexpensive and convenient publishing there has been a small explosion of books titled something along the lines of "N Things to Try Now That You're In This Hobby."  And certainly ham radio has its share of these.  Just this week another one was published, 99 Things You Can Do with Amateur Radio. It's an easy read, and it's easy to skip over some of the chapters that don't quite connect, but it's good nonetheless to see a sweep-up of ideas like this.  A similarly themed book is 21 Things to do After You Get Your Amateur Radio License, by the author of the No-Nonsense Test Guide series (item #3 here).  By the way, you can see the books' respective lists by clicking through the links above and using the "Look Inside" feature to read the tables of contents.  They are interesting in and of themselves, and are sure to spur new ideas.  They're fairly comprehensive, and honestly I'm having trouble thinking of much to add beyond "combine with your other activities."

This naturally segues into "so what's your list?" or perhaps even a sort of New Year's Resolutions / Less-Grim Bucket List.  It is that time of the year after all.  I'm not patient enough this morning to itemize 99 or even 21 things, so here's my big list:
0: More outdoor, portable, light weight, practical radio use in combination with other things I'm doing anyway.
"Um, can you be more specific?"  Right now, no.  But stay tuned in 2018 as even more improbable, bone-crunching activities – now involving RF burns – are blogged.

So what's on your list for the coming year?  Whatever it may be, that's what it's good for.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Mentioning the Winter Solstice

Not a lot to say, but it was awfully dark driving home after work today.  Article and picture credit at APOD:
As usual, click to embiggen.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

An Interesting, Upcoming Phone

Behold the 2019(?) Librem 5:
From the developer's site:

  • Does not run Google Android
  • Does not run Apple iOS
  • Runs PureOS by default, can run most GNU+Linux distros
  • Security focused by design
  • Privacy protection by default
  • Works with 2G/3G/3G, GSM, UMTS, and LTE networks
  • CPU separate from Baseband
  • Hardware kill switches for camera, microphone, WiFI/Bluetooth, and Baseband
I think that I just decided to nurse along this aging iPhone for a year or so longer to see how the initial release of this phone works out.  The company seems to have blasted through their pre-orders to be funded at 150%, so it's looking like I'm not the only one interested.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Recommendation: Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge by Mike Resnick

It's just some first-rate science fiction that had escaped my notice until recently.  Here's the Wikipedia page link – go ahead, good description, no spoilers there either.  It's fairly short and very inexpensive, and over 20 years old.  How did I miss out on this until now?

Monday, December 18, 2017

Clara Rockmore Talks Theremin

So you'd better damn well listen!  5 Secrets for Mastering the Theremin, over at Atlas Obscura.

Will have more substantial content along in a day or two.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Movie Review: Star Wars VIII, The Last Jedi

Look, almost anything I can say here would be spoileriffic, so let me just say that this is too many cats in one bag, and most of the cats are kind of skinny.  It feels like a set of scenes were carefully constructed to look iconic, and then an overall plot was groupthunk together in order to string them into a single movie.  If The Force Awakens caught flack for being a re-casting of A New Hope, this movie toys with us and tries to be its own show by repeatedly setting up scenes echoing ones from The Empire Strikes Back and then reversing the outcome.  I guess that's what passes for originality these days in Hollywood.

For all that, there are some genuine moments of humor mixed in.  Luke Skywalker in particular has some segments where he's mis-directing, mocking the seriousness of the situation, and just generally showing a Yoda-esqe sense of humor.  You get the feeling that not only is Luke Skywalker tired of being the Big Damn Hero of the Galaxy, but Mark Hamill is tired of being Luke Skywalker and furthermore the scriptwriters are getting tired of him too.  But they all know there's another round or two left, so they might as well have some fun.  Surprisingly this works, and makes up some of the best parts of the movie.  Carrie Fisher as Prices Leia... what is there to say.  If you think they gave away what happens to her in the trailers, um, "This is not going to go the way you think."

Any middle story in a trilogy is going to suffer for being the transitional tale.  This one is no exception, so perhaps I shouldn't be so hard on the movie.  Most of the individual scenes are worth watching just for what they are, and the plot line does advance the story from Point A to Point B.  It's definitely better than any of the prequel trilogy.  Call it somewhere in the 2.5 to 3 stars out of 4 range, depending on your mood and expectations.

ps: Watching how things finally worked out lessens this film's meaning and impact.  Let's call it 1.5 stars.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Battery Data: Eneloop vs. Eneloop Pro in an FT-817nd

BLUF: Running the Yaesu FT-817nd radio the way I run a radio,
8x AA Eneloop Pro batteries: 3 hours.
8x AA Eneloop batteries: 30 minutes.
Mind you, this is operating the way I operate: 2.5 watts on PSK-31 making call after call, and using 5 watts on FM to the local repeater.  It's pretty abusive of these little batteries, but it's how I operate and I wanted to see what they could do in the real world.

Conclusion: While the white "standard" Eneloops will work after a fashion, they're not worth the bother.  They were crumbling in less than 10 minutes, and barely made it to the half-hour mark.  The black Eneloop Pros are enough for an easy day hike, but really not much more.  As far as being a trail VHF radio the FT-60 is probably a better choice, just because it has a couple of really nice power saver features auto-enabled.

Still... making a contact to a guy out in Washington state with a handful of AA batteries is pretty damn cool.

Now on to our comic interlude:

No, no, Jason.  You want the black Eneloops for this job.  Of course, that's what the Sith use in their lightsabers, while the Jedi are stuck with the white "standard" Eneloops.  This goes a long way toward explaining Vader's remark "If you only knew the power of the Dark Side."

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

A Likely Solution to the Fermi Paradox

A plausible solution to the Fermi Paradox is presented today over at SMBC.  The actual probability of this being the solution?  As always with these sorts of things, that's still anybody's guess.

Remember to read the mouse-over text and hit the big red gag button at the end.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

How the IAEA Works

... and serves as the eyes and ears of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty enforcement.  Explained in cartoon graphic form over at PhD Comics.  Worth your ten minutes.

First the caves...

Remember this post from this past September?

Scientists are closing in on warm caves under Antartica which could support secret life
Now comes this:
Fossil hunters find man-sized penguin on New Zealand beach
That's a somewhat misleading headline.  Fossilized bones were found, not actual 6' tall living, breathing giant penguins.

What next, shoggoths?  Elder Things?  Or perhaps even worse?

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Learning by Doing, Pt. 2

Another camp-out with the ham club (see Part 1 here), and as before there were many lessons learned.  Learned from getting out there and setting up in the field, in not entirely friendly weather.

Success: The FT-817nd radio, LDG Z-817 autotuner, and LNR EFT-10/20/40 antenna all worked together perfectly.  Yes, I know that LNR says their antenna doesn't need a tuner, but I'm here to tell you that in the real world it does.  Anyway, with nothing more than 2.5 watts and PSK-31 digital mode (driven by a cheap Linux laptop), I was knocking out contacts from New York state to Venezuela.  And how about that antenna.  It took all of 5 minutes to put up, strung between two bushes and over a convenient tree branch.  Simple, fast, and (if this matters to you) just about invisible.

Fail: The new/used cheap, light, strong Therm-a-Rest sleeping pad I picked up was just too thin to use on recently snow-covered gravel.  Slept cold on my back all night.  Should've used a thicker pad, given the conditions.  But I just had to try out the new pad, and brother did I learn its limitations.

Success: Anticipating operating in cold and windy weather, I used the big Eureka 9x9 dome tent.  It was a sort of roughing-it plush, giving plenty of living and radio operating room that was sheltered from the wind. That made all the difference.

Fail: I'd been looking for the small tent's 7x4 footprint polyethylene ground cloth for some time now.  I found it alright, packed in with the big tent.  Ended up using it under the sleeping half of the tent, and minorly suffered with dampness seeping up through the floor elsewhere.  No biggie, but I've got to get a new properly-sized ground cloth for this tent ASAP.

Success: The little Anker USB charging stick did a great job of keeping the cell phone topped off.  Judging from the 4 led "fuel gauge," it holds about 4, maybe more full charges.  With light use this might keep a cell phone alive for as much as a week in the backcountry.  Or it could be a real butt-saver if the cell phone's mapping software is needed in a pinch.  That one app alone can burn through half a phone charge in the blink of an eye.  Including its charging cord and mesh keeper bag, it comes in at 5 oz., and is well worth the weight.

Miscellaneous furniture thoughts: A 18"x12"x3/4" foam pad made a dandy radio operating seat, while a really nice fold-up mini-chair I've had for years didn't work nearly as well.  Just a matter of being easier to lean in to the radio when sitting on the foam pad.  And once again, that little 18" square table proved just right for getting the radio & laptop up enough to conveniently operate.  OTOH, on a true backpacking trip even that would get left behind, in favor of woodland tables of opportunity (i.e., logs that don't seem to be harboring malevolent wildlife).

Probably won't bother with when hiking: Bringing the big 12 AH Bioenno battery for the FT-817nd when backpacking.  At a hair under 3 lbs, it's hard to justify hauling around all of that energy when 8x Eneloop Pros will give a day hike's worth of power for 1/5 the weight.  Of course, this only goes for a QRP radio; the FT-857D requires the the bigger battery, but that's more of a car camping proposition.

Maybe/Maybe Not for a hike: Laptop & SignaLink box vs. iPhone (which I'm carrying anyway) & bluetooth keyboard & external speaker.  There's a 3.9 lb difference here, but the operating speed the laptop gives over the iPhone (not to mention operator fatigue) makes it a wash, so it will come down to the particular trip.  Day hike where I'm not carrying a tent and stove and etc.?  Take the laptop.  Multi-day backpacking trip?  iPhone & kbd hands-down.

BTW, all of this weight-fiddling gets the base pack down to 28.1 lbs, including the associated (if minimal) radio gear.  Somewhat lighter if just going for a day hike.  If not exactly lightweight (let alone ultralight), this is entirely manageable.

Fail: Didn't take any pictures.  Too late now!

ps 12/12, two more successes worth mentioning:
- Even though it was too wet and cold to lighten up and hike in (not to mention that we'd rescheduled to another non-hiking campsite), I'd still packed in with the Osprey Atmos 50.  When one old Marine who'd spent time hauling an 85 lb ALICE around Vietnam a while ago tried it on, he took some convincing to hand it back!
- Made a contact with a friend co-piloting a 737 on 20m SSB.  That was unusual!

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Yeah, it really is that bad.

Usually the web comic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal is funny and brainy.  Today it's just brainy, but this time brainy as in "massive screaming migraine headache" kind of brainy.  Health insurance costs have gone batshit in pockets all over this country.  Here, just go read and weep.  And don't forget to read the mouse-over text and to hit the big red gag button at the end.

Free markets work.  Politically connected corporatism doesn't work at all.  Centrally planned systems can seem to work for a while, until they run out of other peoples' money.  This has been experimentally confirmed time and again over the past hundred years.  What is so hard to understand here?

Friday, December 8, 2017

A Good Day to Hunker Down

Here, the weather map says it all:

So much for the backpacking trip I was going to start this morning!

ps: Here's a bit more, starting with big fluffy flakes piling in:

Thursday, December 7, 2017

New Buffett Album of Old Recordings: Buried Treasure

Dusty tapes lost for decades in a Mobile AL studio...  hard to resist.  If you like Buffett's early work, this is earlier still, when he was trying (as he discusses in the commentary) to emulate Gordon Lightfoot.  Well, things got better from there, much better, but even so it wasn't a bad start.  Most of the songs are simple studio recordings of Jimmy with his acoustic guitar doing his own compositions, but there are enough surprises to spike things up.  The live cover of California Dreaming with the Junior Miss contestants singing backup has to be heard to be believed.  The guy always could put on a good show and get people wrapped up in the music.  Maybe the best part is that you can hear echoes of work he would be cranking out in the next decade or so, hints of good things to come.

Also noteworthy, every other track is Buffett talking about his early career, what went into a particular song, etc.  He also mentions that there were about 120 songs unearthed, and this disk is labeled "Volume One."  Buffett's never been one to leave money on the table, so I'm guessing we'll see Vols. 2 thru N rolling out at some six-month-to-a-year intervals.  Something to look forward to.

So yeah, Buried Treasure is an apt name for this album.  It's not for everybody, but if you think you might like it, you probably will.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Recommended Podcast Episode: Backpacking & Ham Radio

Here's a worthwhile episode of The First 40 Miles podcast that discusses using ham radios in conjunction with backpacking.  The two hosts of the podcast spell out the "why" and give a detailed introduction into the "how" parts as well.  It's enough to get you started, and way more friendly than my post a couple of days ago about a quick-and-dirty licensing method for nerds.  No, the two hosts of The First 40 Miles are normal people, and pretty nice too!  They do a good job of explaining things, much better than my mug-of-black-coffee approach.

Anyway, go have a listen.  It's right at 40 minutes long and there's a big old "Play" button right up front, so even if you're not into the whole podcasting thing it's easy to hang around your computer to listen to the entire episode.

Backpacking, hiking, even biking, all go together really well with ham radio.  In fact, almost any backcountry recreation does.  Go listen and find out for yourself.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Batteries from Hell

The energy density of modern batteries is just off the charts.  Jumped my Mustang today with a lithium batt pack that couldn't have weighed more than a pound.  It's a 3 year old model and no longer made, but it's a lot like this one.  Except that 3 years ago, it cost $20 more and only had one USB port.

Then I spent some hours talking all over the eastern half of the U.S. on a ham radio running on eight high-zoot NiMH AA batteries.  They're back in the charging cradle now, kind of like how Darth Vader has to go back to his med-cradle after mowing down another batch of Rebel Scum.  For all that... talking all over things east of the Mississippi on a handful of AAs?  Incredible.

And this is all fairly old consumer-grade off-the-shelf stuff.  I can't even imagine what will come next.  But I'll bet it'll require neutron shielding.

BTW, the only indications that the FT-817nd gave that these AA batteries were getting low were (a) the battery icon went from "full two bars" to "one bar" – big clue there; and (b) the SWR read high when pumping 5 watts on VHF.  That was it.  Hey, that's pretty good battery level information by Yaesu standards.

Tired batteries, after a hard afternoon of astonishing output.

The Quick & Dirty Guide to Getting a Ham License for Tech People

This is one for people who've at least worked with simple circuits before and have a basic understanding of voltage, current, resistance, power, etc.  No deep knowledge of electronics required, but not starting from zero either.  In other words, pretty much anybody in engineering, tech, or the sciences, or who dabbles there.  It boils down to a very few simple steps:

(0) You don't have to learn Morse code anymore.  Full Stop.  If you want you can learn it later, but that's up to you.  When just getting into things though, don't let this side-project slow you down.

(1) Get and read Ham Radio for Dummies.  It won't directly help you to pass the test, but it will give you the broad background where the rest of the topic makes sense.  The current edition is from 2013, and I see there's about to be a 2018 edition released in late April next year.  Don't put this off however, because there's a bootleg pdf of the 2004 edition you can pull for free right now, and it'll be enough to help you get licensed.  Here's the link.  But be sure to go buy the new edition when it comes out.

(2) Get the Band Plan chart.  You'll be referring to it a lot while studying.  Free pdf at the ARRL site.  (Yes, the 2200 and 630 meter bands are new and won't be referred to in the current edition of Ham Radio for Dummies.  Don't worry about it, you won't be using these for a while anyway.)

(3) Get and study the No-Nonsense Study Guides for Technician and General level licenses, once you've got a basic idea of which end's up (see steps #1 & 2).  Don't bother with the Extra level until you have some operating experience.  The author even gives away the Technician Guide for free, and the e-book versions (kindle, nook, or pdf) are under $10.  Here's a link to the author's page.

(4) Practice using free online tests at qrz.com.  Link here.  Yes, you'll have to register and give them an email address, but they are not evil spammers.

 (4.5, added since original post) Register with the FCC before your test.  It's a new step, but it's not hard.  Here's the link.  Also, here's some more info links at the ARRL's site, including how-to-FCC-site videos.

(5) Find a testing site locally, and go get this thing done.  Take the Technician and General tests at the same session.  If you're a tech person, you've taken and passed far harder tests already.  This one'll be a cake walk.  They are administered by volunteers from clubs (no more driving 400 miles to an FCC office) and usually run about $15.  Here's the find-a-test-session link.  Not the most user-friendly site, just type in the zip code box and use the adjacent pull-down menu menu for how far you're willing to drive.

And that's it.  Whole thing, you're out less than twenty five bucks plus gas money.

Let me repeat, don't try for testing up through Extra in that first go-round.  The first two license levels, Technician and General, are plenty to get started with and are pretty easy to prepare for.  The Extra exam is much harder, and is packed with a lot of details that very likely will not stick with you until you have the full context a year or so of operating experience will give.  Also, Extra only opens up about 15% more of the HF bands.  From a raw payoff-for-effort standpoint, probably not worth it.

Another tip, when you're studying and taking the practice tests, you don't need 100% scores, you just need 72% to pass.  When you're consistently scoring above 85% on the practice exams, you're ready.  Don't over-study, don't burn yourself out before you get to have fun with this, and above all, don't make the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Now having said all of the above, different people respond better to different styles of instruction, and not everyone is a scientist or engineer.  If you want a little more detail, the good people over at the Ham Radio 360 podcast have put together a friendly getting started page.

Glad to get this post out.  I keep getting asked this same question from scientists and engineers who don't need the full let's-take-it-from-zero course.  It'll be nice to refer them to a written step-by-step.

ps: "tech" vs. "Technician": The first level of ham radio license in the U.S. is unfortunately called "Technician" while somebody who is in a technology field is frequently (including here) said to be "in tech" or "a tech person" or similar.  I've tried to keep the two distinct in this post, but if there's any lingering confusion hopefully this will clear it up.
pps: If this post in any way inspires you to actually go out and get your ham ticket, please post a comment back.  It'd be kind of... interesting.

Go Stare at the Moon

No, really, take a few minutes to go outside and look at the moon tonight.  It probably won't change your life, but it will be worth the time.

As if you need any more motivation to do this, watch this 3:45 film clip of a 2013 moonrise over New Zealand:

Setting the camera about 2km from the people in the foreground gives an interesting perspective to things.  The real surprise though is that it all unfolds in real time.  Beyond careful camera set-up there are no photo tricks; it's all raw footage.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Check your meter before measuring high voltage.

This public service reminder from KB6NU's blog:

Because if the meter's dead, it'll look like the circuit's off and safe and... well, you get the idea.

BTW, has anybody seen November?  I seem to have misplaced the time and here it is December already.