Tuesday, December 31, 2019

2019's Greatest Hits

Continuing the tradition, here's the top post (or series) from each month.  On with the show!

New Year's Resolve  Mostly achieved these goals too, but then the bar was pretty low.
Gear Review: Osprey 22 Daypack  This is a great piece of gear that, again, is about "get outside."
Tuxachanie Trail Series:  Tuckered  Navigation  Water  All the Rest  
Ham Camp  Operated solar-powered QRO for two days on a ten pound system.
A Visit to the Chalmette Battlefield  Where America first definitively kicked international butt.
Five Lessons from Apollo  Short and sweet, with a link to the extended version.
Dwarf Cypress Forest  No dwarves, just a bunch of short trees.  No elves or ents either.
DIY Hiking/Backpacking/MTB First Aid Kit  Lightweight and practical.
The Baytles Play the Bird  You know all the tunes.  It was a fun evening with old friends.
Coffeneuring 2019  (multipart) Challenge accepted, goal accomplished.
Oysters in Trouble in MS, AL  Don't let this happen to your river.
Lessons from Ham Camp #19  A wet, challenging weekend, and also a lot of fun.

Let's add a few honorable mentions while we're at it:
More New Antenna  Taking up the New Year's Resolve of "get outside," this gear helped.
The book on software development, or How Not to Program Like Gerald Ford is Still President.
Yaesu FTM-7250D Quick Start Programming  A completely different sort of programming. 
Osprey Synchro 5 Hydration Pack Review  Biggest single innovation in hydropacks since the 90's.

Note that eleven of these sixteen items involve getting outside in some form.  Overall, it looks like one of the main initial goals was met, and with some enthusiasm.  Lots of other things were posted over the year, so have a look around.

Well, on to 2020 and to all the fresh new adventures the new year will bring.  But first, the Pic of the Year:

Not as cold as it looks.  Originally posted on 12/8/19.

Monday, December 30, 2019

Mention, and There It Is

Last week in noting a new science podcast, "Short Wave," at NPR, I wrote (link):
Somehow and ironically, they have yet to do an episode on shortwave!
Of course, on that very day they posted exactly that.  Here's the link; it's just a bump over ten minutes' listen.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Followup on Easy Digi & Trail-Ready QRP Radio

A couple of years ago I'd posted a short bit on a lightweight interface and using it with the FT-817nd radio.  Since then, I've used it a handful of times both on the trail and at home.  The long-term verdict is that while it works, it is generally much easier to haul the extra three pounds of laptop.  (I know, I know: 3 lbs more pack weight is a steep price.  Hear me out on this.)  For anything contest-like, such as Winter Field Day, the laptop is overwhelmingly superior.  The narrow 300 Hz filter doesn't play particularly well with the iPhone, it's easier to get into a comfortable operating position with the laptop, and most importantly, the controls are way better with the SignalLink and fldigi software on an actual computer.  A decent table to operate from is much more needed with the iPhone/Easy Digi gear, which is kind of at odds of operating light in the backcountry.  Also, the iPhone has to come out of its Otter box so that the chubby interface plug can get to the port.  Finally, because the Easy Digi box feeds in as an audio signal and not through the digital port, a bunch of voice-mode menu items (VOX, SSB mic gain, etc.) have to be changed, then changed back if you're going to do actual voice.  It's a pain.

Reflecting on all this, using this lightweight PSK-31 interface is an even bigger handicap than working QRP in the first place.  Then you have to work QRP.  These things stack up, and the odds of making contacts dwindle quickly.

Having said all that, it is just plain cool operating PSK-31 digital mode off of an iPhone, and shaving three pounds off the pack is always a really good thing.  Additionally, it's a serviceable backup if the laptop ever goes tango utah.  The price was right too.  I'm glad to have this in my bag of tricks, limited as it is.  In the course of keeping in practice with it this weekend, I've made a handful of contacts to MI, MD, PA, etc., so it does work.

Last year's WFD setup.  Note the SignalLink box next to tent.

Misting rain outside here in coastal MS.  Not much else to do today.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Quick Movie Review: Tolkien (2019)

It's... it's almost OK.  It's beautifully made and well-acted, those are its strengths.  The rest mostly tells a patchwork story of a young man caught between a rock and a hard place and the trenches of WWI, who somehow makes his way into academia despite the bad odds.  Now, exactly how close this all is to the real-life Tolkien I can't quite say, but the basic outline is correct.

The downside is that it's overly choppy, cutting between trenches and schoolboy incidents, then back to graduate studies, back to the trenches, to to-be wife Edith, etc.  And somehow, the magic and humor is missing.  That's the real tragedy here.  It's not exactly joyless, but the funny-smart side of Tolkien remains largely unexplored, leaving only a few instances of schoolboy antics.

Also, there's a sort of ham-handedness to the proceedings.  "Oh that's where he got the idea for the Dead Marshes," or the devoted enlisted man "Sam" (real? a semi-true story? figment of a hack script writer's mind?), those sorts of things.  The approach cheapens the revelation of Tolkien's formative experiences into mere fan-service box-checking.

In summary, this film occupies a sort of uncanny valley: not really deep enough for the people who enjoyed the book The Road to Middle Earth, but a the same time, not entertaining enough for the people who wouldn't read that book.  So who's left?  Um, people who'll take a flyer on Netflix, I suppose.  Anyway I did enjoy the scenery along the way.

Two Stars out of Four.  Just save your time and read The Road to Middle Earth instead.  This movie is not a complete waste of time, it's kind of barely enjoyable, but don't go out of your way to see it.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Science Round-Up

In yet another year-end round-up article, this one outdoes the rest, because it goes for the entire decade:

There may be a few others worth mentioning, but those sound about right.  It's a short, non-technical read.  You can click through without fear.

More later, as this damp winter weekend progresses.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Atlas Obscura 2019 Round-Up

Their Favorite Places of 2019.  Have a look, some of this has me almost ready to dust off the passport.

In a similar vein, watch for a year-end wrap-up here in the next couple of days.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Once Again..

The Christmas Comet returns!

Just a few more days left in the year...  let's see what they bring.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

A Nice Little Science Podcast

And fairly new too, it's Short Wave over at NPR.  Ten minute (-ish) episodes, ready for the downloads.  From the blurb:
New discoveries, everyday mysteries, and the science behind the headlines – all in about 10 minutes, every weekday.  It's science for everyone, using a lot of creativity and a little humor.
Somehow and ironically, they have yet to do an episode on shortwave!  Maybe that'll be rectified in the new year.  Anyway, worth a listen.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Music Review: OCMS Live at the Ryman

Hm, mentioned this album back in October, ordered it immediately, and have played it at least once a week ever since.  It's pure Old Crow Medicine Show playing at the mother church of country music, so you know it's got to be good.  All of the songs are old familiars, but more than that, it's a gathering of friends.  The very first voice you hear is music historian and long-time WSM DJ Eddie Stubbs introducing the band, along with guest singer Margo Price chiming in, followed by the band, with a hearty welcome.

The songs, once again, are old favorites, but they have a new upbeat twist on them.  Even the songs of grief, like "Take 'em Away" and "Methamphetamine," have a an upbeat shine.  It's more that they're helping people celebrate beating hard times than playing the blues over them.  From anyone else this would be, well, not quite right.  From OCMS at the Ryman, it's time to celebrate.  If they do this with the downbeat numbers, the upbeat ones are even more jump-up-and-sing numbers.  And of course "Wagon Wheel" is the next-to-last, done as a sing-along.  The only problem, if it can be called that, is that the music ends too soon.  A follow-up Volume II would be most welcome, i.e., shut up and take my money already.

However... if you haven't heard OCMS before, it may be all too much.  It may be better start out with their studio albums, or even "Best of."  This is high-test music played with high energy between friends, and a more gentle introduction may be needed.  That's frequently the case with live albums, and this is one of the more amped-up examples.  Exercise good judgement and due caution.

Here, watch the promo trailer, you'll see what this is about: over a hundred years of traditions rolled up with modern energy into one slick package.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Lessons from Ham Camp #19

Last weekend the MS Coast Amateur Radio Association held another of our camp-outs, this time at the Big Biloxi area off of Hwy 49, just north of Gulfport.  Good stuff... but there was some rain, some heavy fog, a whole lot of damp, and then the sun came out – just in time for the drive home!  This was somewhat challenging in a tent, but it was still a lot of fun.

Then for the Tuesday night net (see What We Do on 2m, from a couple of years back) it was my turn to run things, so for the tech topic I threw out the question: What did you learn at Ham Camp #19?  Briefly, here are some replies:
  • Waterproof your tent!  Well duh.  But I'm very glad I did this two years ago.
  • The current solar/ionospheric conditions stink on ice!  Some of us made contacts, some none.
  • The Yaesu FT-857D has a built-in speech processor!  With all those menus, who knew?  Works great!
  • No solar power!  With weather like that, those of us who put out panels were averaging about 5 watts.
  • A W3EDP-mini antenna, only 21' tall, tunes great on 80m & 160m if you have a 30'+ counterpoise/ground wire at the tuner.  Made some contacts on 80m too, but 160m was sparse.
  • End-fed antennas, of any design, rock!  Especially for camping.  Easy up, easy contacts, easy down.
There were also a many other minor successes along the way:
  • Using chirp, got one of the other ham's FT-857D programmed up for the local repeaters and the common set of  VHF/UHF simplex channels.  Short work!  BTW, if you want some how-to notes, here's a previous post covering it.
  • Another ham hooked up a local UHF-to-VHF repeater, so that the other campers could easily reach the Biloxi VHF repeater from a UHF handheld.
  • Lots of new battery testing, even though there was barely any solar to feed it.  We were all averaging a horrendous 2 amp-hours per contact, but there was still plenty of power to go around.
  • A crystal radio (this one) sort of worked, but at 20 miles from a bunch of coffee pot stations, there really wasn't enough power coming in to get the earpiece output up above campground noise.  Next time, will bring a high-impedence amplified speaker.  Even so, it was kinda cool.
  • The food was outstanding.  Straight-from-Chicago hot dogs, grilled beef and asparagus roll-ups, grilled shrimp, and (of course and as always) Spam and egg breakfasts.  Remember kids, if you go off and forget the butter at home, fry the Spam first and you'll have plenty of grease to float the eggs.
And that's about it.  Still packing things back down, but should have that all sorted this weekend.  A good time was had by all, and there was some relatively painless learning involved; those are all that matters.  Oh yeah, no injuries, not even tiny RF burns.  That matters too.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Happy Winter Solstice!

Yeah, we're here already.  Have a solargraph animation, courtesy of NASA APOD.

Friday, December 20, 2019

A Little History on Little St. George Island

Article over at The Times.  I won't recount the whole thing, but only comment that the map in Fig. 1 is fascinating, and the guy in Fig. 3 taught me how to throw a castnet.  Does that make me really damn old?

Click through, it's a short read.  Or just click through and look at that map.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

An Interesting Podcast from the BBC

In Our Time – a deep dive into various deep topics, always of interest.  For example, here's one on... coffee.  All good stuff, so far.

File it under 'radio.'  That is all for today.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

The Far Side Website is Up

It looks like it's an online repository of Gary Larson's cartoons, with the occasional new one thrown in to keep things fresh.  Here's his intro letter explaining how things went down, including problems with people ripping off his work.

On one hand, I don't blame Larson.  On the other hand, Randal Munroe of xkcd fame has taken a much more web-centric approach, namely, use as you wish, unmodified, and give a credit link back to his site.  Either one is fine by me, and though I prefer Munroe's approach, Larson's work is his own to do with as he pleases.  I'm just glad to have him back, and online.

is back.


It's a couple of years old, but this stuff never gets old.  Half-hour long, so set aside the time to watch.

Had to email the link to this clip out to somebody who needed to hear it, so it's today's post.  More, much more, local action later in the week.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Green Light & Pain

Could Migraine Pain Relief Be Found in the Color Green?  Today, at NPR.

You mean like this and this?  Yes, I think we've definitively established experimentally that biking under a green canopy makes many pains and problems melt away.

BTW, click through on those links – they're just to old blog posts here at the 'swamp – and embiggen to enjoy a little slice of the woods while you're at work.  Those couple of pics turned out OK.

Friday, December 13, 2019

40 Years Ago: London Called

Article at the BBC.  I think I'm on my third copy of the album.  It gets played a lot, things just seem to happen when it's on the machine.  A bunch of 6D integrals and lab reports got ground out to this sound, and it's still inspiring good physics on a daily basis.

If you feel compelled to rush out and find a copy, be sure to get one with the bonus disc The Vanilla Tapes.  They're the working drafts of most of songs on the album plus a few extra tracks, they give an understanding of the path to the finished result.

That is all for today.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Owl Feathers

We have a pair of barred owls who patrol the neighborhood, keeping the local rodents at bay and making suitably spooky noises.  They're good to have around and a lot of fun to listen to on a dark night.  A couple of months ago, I noticed that one had dropped a feather in the yard, and the question of legality of taking it inside came up.

So, off to the interwebs to look... and ugh, that Federal Register business is overwhelmingly complete, to the point that in less than half an hour of reading you're not make heads or tails of it.  Fortunately, some time ago a reporter summarized it in this article.

Short answer: Generally, wild bird feathers are illegal to own, so don't.  The legal reasoning is somewhat contorted, but it comes down to owls and most other birds are illegal to hunt, it is also illegal to traffic in their parts, it's impossible to sort out a "found" feather from a "killed for" feather, so practically it's only possible to enforce by a blanket rule making ownership illegal.  Pick it up and examine?  Nobody's going to kick in your door for that, but don't take it inside.

Huh.  Learn something new around here every day.  Wish I'd thought to snap a picture of it.  Untouched and still on the grass, of course.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Winter Colors

Just a snapshot from this morning's bike ride over the Bay Bridge, looking south toward the railroad bridge and open Gulf.  The clouds look pretty heavy in the pic, but in reality it was just a gray day with no rain in sight.  As always, click to embiggen.

Here, have one more of that heavy sky:

All I got for today.  But aren't those two pics enough?

ps: With those winter grays and pale blues, it looks like the weather should be cold, perhaps even icy.  But no, it was in the high 60's.  Even so, with the damp air here that can chill you right to the bone.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Season's Greetings

A little late, dated from last Saturday, but it's still a welcome holiday message from the National Hurricane Service:

And with that, to all, all a good night!

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Crystal Radio Follow-Up

On the heels of Sunday's note on a CR kit build and last week's copper penny CR, here's an article about of the other end of things, a Zinc Negative Resistance CW Transmitter over at the wonderfully named and yet sadly neglected http://sparkbangbuzz.com  This involves construction of the closest thing to a DIY transistor any of us are likely to see, so it's worth a look just for that alone.

sparkbangbuzz reads like a cross between a grimoire from a medieval alchemist's shop and a selection of tech reports from ACME Development Laboratories, but there is some heavy scientific lifting going on there.  Lots to investigate in the coming years.

Monday, December 2, 2019


New work on general relativity yields insights into what's going on inside an even horizon.  Article at Quanta.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Crystal Radio Build

OK, let's get this part out of the way first: I am a complete sell-out, and officially now have no ham geek cred.  That's right, I built a crystal radio from a kit.  But let me say why: I needed an easy win about now, and didn't want to start my experimentations with a flail.  Besides, I was all fired up after last week's post about Minimalist Radio.  When I went looking around for parts (and I did, I swears it!), it was just about as cheap to buy a kit.  So... off to the races.

With that out of the way, the kit is the Picard radio from Borden Radio Company, by way of retailer MTC Radio at this link.  Here's the Bordan product page, scroll down to the right kit.  Then scroll down to the next kit, a ready-to-rock foxhole radio featuring a razor blade detector, all screwed to a scrap piece of pine board.  So Borden's got some geek cred for selling these, and getting them out to aspiring radio geeks.  Also, as I found out later, Borden's got a respectable line of hard-to-get parts for the next DIY go-round, up to and including WWII vintage razor blades, all at a very cool URL: http://www.xtalman.com

So now for the two big questions: How well does it work?  Um, it gets the in-town 5,000 watt WMEJ, about 3 miles away, all too well during the day, and doesn't have enough selectivity to hear anything else.  In the evening, when they turn their power down to I dunno, maybe 250 watts or so, it is possible to pick up 50,000 watt WWL from nearly 50 miles away (they were talking about – surprise! – sports).  So, for something so incredibly simple, it's a complete success.

Second big question: How well did it come together, both structurally and aesthetically?  Not bad, in a pre-WWI sort of way.  Take a look:

Design dates to the mid-point of the interval between Now and the War of 1812.

The two alligator clips attach to ground (black) and a random wire receive antenna (red).  The entire build was easy, if a little english had to occasionally be applied to various parts to make them fit.  The key thing during construction is patience: to wind a nice tight coil with all 75 wraps, to use the recommended clear spray on the coil after wrapping (it keeps things glued in place), and to wait a couple of days for the clear spray to completely dry.  The rest is a snap, requiring only steady hands and a few basic tools.

Speaking of winding the coil, yes, this kit requires that you wind the coil, and that you wind it neatly. So even though it is a kit, it does require some skill and patience to build.  Mostly the latter though.  I guess that does restore at least some geek cred.

Back to its performance, it's not bad, but I can't wait to take it on an upcoming camp-out.  Up in Desoto NF, at the location we've chosen, there are several mid-watt stations at 15 to 20 mile distances, and of course WWL off over the horizon.  It's going to be interesting to see how it does when there's nothing in the immediate neighborhood, swamping all other signals.

Enough already.  You can read more about crystal radios at Wikipedia.  It was fun to build, fun to test, and now it goes back into its box until the campout.  Again, when it picked up WWL out of New Orleans, that was enough to declare it a success.

A Small Luxury

I'd been wanting one of these for a while.  It's just a clock.  Well, really more like two clocks in one:

The nice thing is that it auto-sets using a radio time signal from WWVB, which makes it literally the most nearly perfect thing in the entire house.  After that, the other features are dual local and Zulu time displays; a backlight bar across the top to momentarily turn that on; and a nine-and-a-half minute countdown timer that does exactly one thing, namely, remind a long-winded ham operator to call out station ID in slightly less than the legally required ten minute interval.  Like the backlight, it works at the press of a button and does its job without fuss or complicated user interface.  Seconds are included in the display as well, a small but handy feature when setting another clock against this one.  One more thing worth mentioning is that the display is usefully large.  The main numbers are slightly over 1" high, easy to read across a long desk or even across a small room.

The clock was a snap to set up.  Insert two AA batts, switch on the time signal receive, push-button cycle around the two clocks to their respective time zones, and give it five minutes to sync to WWVB.  And that's it!  I've had coffee pots with electronics that were more complicated to operate.  Hats off to MFJ for getting the UI right on this one: simple, to the point, and only what the job calls for.

Note the lack of extraneous, complicating functions.  No alarms (beyond the one-button fixed timer), USB jacks, Bluetooth interfaces, etc.  When it comes to devices such as this one, less is more. Other small electronic manufacturers would do well to follow MFJ's lead here on UI design.

Reviews over at eHam are mixed.  The chief complaint is that it eats AA batts and sometimes has trouble syncing with WWVB.  The first is a non-issue because with rechargeable batts it's no expense, and for whatever reason this clock synced right up with WWVB.  In sum, neither problem applies here, buy YMMV.

Manufactured by MFJ (feature tour and third party review videos at the link; worth watching of you're considering buying), and you can get it at a slightly discounted price from MTC Radio.  Five out of five stars, highly recommended!