More than just a Ham radio blog.
is an informative, cynical and sometimes humorous look at what is happening in the world of amateur radio.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Passwords and Penny Theives

There are a few good and useful amateur radio websites that I just cannot live without and I have gone to the trouble of registering, but in general I try my best to avoid sites that require registration. Some of you may ask why and the answer is simple, passwords. I can only remember so many passwords. You either keep secure by using a different password on each website you visit or you use the same one so you can remember it. Some people have no problem remembering passwords and others write them down, but I have to admit I struggle to remember a password even five minutes after have typed it in. With all the passwords I have for on-line services and websites I just can not cope with anymore. So in the past week I have found three new ham radio sites, that looked interesting and I would like to have reviewed here but the dreaded "You need to be logged in to view this page" message came up. Well screw you idiots! If I cannot see your website how the heck do I know if I want to register and risk giving away my details to some deadhead spammer or worse. The other danger with sites that require registration is they could be phishing so entering a password you have used elsewhere could prove troublesome.

Another thing I have come across time and time again is sites that sell you what can be legitimately downloaded for free. A prime example is manuals for amateur radio gear most of which can be downloaded from the manufacturers websites. In a lot of cases the pay for versions are massively inferior having been scanned from dogeared copies where as most of the manufactures supply first generation copies. Recently a local ham was delighted to have found a manual for an old rig he had and told me how much he paid. When I told him the manual was available to download for free from the manufactures website he told me he had clicked on the first site that Goggle threw up and he could not be bothered searching any further. Another fellow ordered a manual from a site in the US and when it arrived it was an almost unreadable photocopy of a badly scanned and badly faded booklet complete with thumb prints and the words "Downloaded from..." in grey across each page. I went on the the manufactures website and downloaded the manual. After a few minutes with a laser printer I was able to give him a printed copy as good as the original for which he was grateful. Even where the manufacture does not have the manual there are plenty of sites hosting free to download manuals for old ham radios and other obsolete technology.

Pass the word! Don't cripple your website with passwords and registration forms and stop hams getting ripped off by educating them where to find the manuals they need.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Copper Chopper Cropper

Merseyside Police's toy 'Copper Chopper', which has been in service since last November has come a cropper. Last week a fanfare of publicity hailed the arrival of the radio controlled eye in the sky when it was used to catch a car thief in dense fog, however the Civil Aviation Authority has noticed the publicity and pointed out that the thief takers are in fact law breakers.

The drone is a £40,000 remote control helicopter fitted with a CCTV, which has been designed with police and military surveillance in mind. Since January 1st drones weighing under 15lb (7kg) need CAA permission to fly within 164ft (50m) of people and within 492ft (150m) of buildings. Merseyside Police failed to get the correct licences and the vehicle has been grounded.

What concerns me is that flying radio control aircraft in open ground has from time to time resulted in fatalities when control has been lost or power has failed. Flying aircraft in built up areas increases the possibility of a control loss accident and where their are people about the risk of a fatality. Bearing in mind just how easy it would be to jam a low power remote control unit I think the risk makes its use unacceptable unless the situation is life threatening, such as in a siege situation. I just hope the CAA see it the way I do.

Looking at pictures of the drone on the BBC's web site makes me wonder how it cost so much. I have seen a US amateurs aerial photographs and video using a radio control helicopter fitted with a webcam and a 23cms transmitter, which include infra red night shots and they are superb, it cost him a little over £400 to build, which is a long way clear of the £40,000 Merseyside police forked out from what the tax payers stumped up.

If you want a Drone of your own you can buy a similar thing that can be controlled from an iPhone from Parrot.

The RSARS - Professional Amateurs

The advertisement for the British Army used to say "Join the professionals" well some of those professionals and ex professionals happen to be amateurs and thanks to them I just lost a good couple of hours over on the Royal Signals Amateur Radio Society site. RSARS have added a section they call an e-Library and the sub-section entitled HF ANTENNAS and PROJECTS is a little cracker. I cannot say I came across anything I had not seen before but the quality of the PDF format documents leaves those on most amateur radio sites looking distinctly shabby. It is a real spit and polish job not just a gloss over and I give whom ever did all the work ten out of ten. One small niggle was a broken link to '20m helically wound MOBILE ANTENNA - EA5AVL' but over all a job well done. A note at the bottom of the page says that more items will be added shortly, I sincerely hope this is true. If these articles were printed and bound together they would make a nice booklet, which would I probably buy, but they are free to download and therefore a brilliant resource for anyone interested in making antennas like myself.

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Saturday, 13 February 2010

Malcolm in the middle

I have been a member of RAYNET since just after I was licenced. Firstly with the Group known as East Clwyd and then after the county boundry changes in 1990, with Flintshire RAYNET. After the passing of Clwyd County ControllerBob Cardwell GW4PUX, Flintshire RAYNET has been run by Group Controller Martin Ellett GW6XYE and Deputy Controller Malcolm McIntosh GW4IEQ. After all these years and because of health issues Malcolm is stepping down, he will be sorely missed. Malcolm has been ying to Martin's yang and put uncountable hours in to the administration and liaison of the group, its members, and the user services.

Many amateurs in North Wales, Merseyside, Cheshire and beyond will remember Malcolm as the voice of GB2RS for many years transmitting the news from his elevated QTH in Dury. Malcolm was ever the consummate professional and was in my opinion one of only a handful of newsreaders that could hold their own with the best the BBC had to offer.

Malcolm remains a member of RAYNET and hopefully we will see him out from time to time, but I would like to personally thank him for helping to make things seem to run like clockwork even when at times event organisers did not have a clue.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Ra Ra Spots and Flares

Ra the sun god has woken from his sleep and the latest news from SpaceWeather.com is that there has been an enormous sunspot 1045 that is crackling with M-class solar flares. The active region has produced three M-class and almost a dozen C-class solar flares since it appeared on Saturday.The strongest blast, an M6-class eruption on February 7th, hurled a coronal mass ejection toward Earth which is due to arrive on the 9th or 10th. NOAA forecasters estimate a 30% chance of high-latitude geomagnetic activity. Some amazing photographs of the Northern lights from Saturday 7th February can be found at various places on the Internet including one by Fredrik Broms of Kvaløya, Norway that is shown on SpaceWeather.com

“The Olympics could be bang in the middle of a solar maximum,” said Richard Harrison, of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Oxfordshire, speaking before the launch of Nasa’s Solar Dynamics Observatory.

Well as far as I am concerned it could not happen at a better time. I really hate these big sporting events that dominate TV, radio and the newspapers for weeks either side of the actual events. It could mean that while half the world watches the sportsmen and women chasing gold I can work the world on a HF band that is wide open but not that busy because most people are stuck in front of their TVs.

The soothsayers are suggesting that the whole show could be wiped out by a big solar flare. Apparently all the satellites will fall out of he sky and every electronic device that is switched on will be rendered useless. Um! Sounds like the millennium bug all over again. Oh well! If it does happen my radio in a biscuit tin might be the only communication we have and I might have to break out the bicycle when we find the car's computer is fried. Sounds like chaos, sounds like we should prepare of anarchy, sounds like we should not take too much notice of the rubbish in the newspapers, well at least until it happens.

There is a good video at the Times on-line along with an article by Hanna Devlin and some ignorant, humorous and even some well informed comments.

Echolink via the iPhone

Don't you just hate it when you get pipped to the post? Yesterday's winner was Tim G4VXE who posted yesterday evening about an Echolink App for the iPhone.

Yes! There I was looking for something interesting to write about and I find that an Echolink application for the iPhone had been released. "My mate Dave 2W0PWR will like that because he has an iPhone" I think and rush back to the blog to do a posting, but there in my blog list I see "echolink-on-iphone" at G4VXE.com Nice one Tim.

Julian G4ILO says in a comment on Tim's item "Use a phone to access a repeater to call someone on the radio who probably has a phone you could just call direct. Okay, I'm sure if I think long enough about this I'll eventually see the point of it." Well I see the point already and it makes sense if you have free VOIP on your phone as it does not cost anything. I cannot take my radios into work, but the mobile phone is a different matter.

As I see it services like Echolink are an interesting addition to amateur radio and not the thin end of the wedge. I look back to an interesting conversation I had on antennas with a station on 40m, we never needed it in the end but it got so fascinating that we made plans to QSY to Echolink if we lost each other.

If I owned an iPhone the application would be useful on a long journey that was through areas of low amateur activity and with BlueTooth in my car it could keep me amused safely. This application is not a great leap forward but is a step on a journey and who knows where it will lead, however if it survives one must wonder if the amateur radio of tomorrow will bear much resemblance to the amateur radio of today.

The app is available here. There are some screen shots over a RadioGeek's blog.

TETRA - Death and mind control

There has for some time been a complete load of rubbish talked about TETRA (TErrestrial Trunked RAdio) called Airwave in the UK and now according to various sources, including the Daily Express police forces in the UK are facing compensation claims from officers over radios they say make them ill and have been blamed by the family of one officer for his death from cancer.

In a test case due to be heard shortly five Lancashire police officers are claiming that their radios made them ill. Hopefully common sense will prevail and they will shown to either swinging the lead or at least the reasons for there illness have nothing to do with the radios, because it is we the tax payers who will pick up the tab and we have already paid out thousands of pounds to these people in sick pay.

The bull about TETRA has been bubbling along for a few years and is based on some misinformation that is repeated in the Daily Express article, namely that the system works on a frequency of its 17.6 hertz signal, which is close to 16Hz at which causes the brain to loose calcium.

TETRA actually usually works in the UHF bands between 330 and 950MHz, but could be configured for almost any band. In the UK the new emergency services TETRA radios use 380 - 385 MHz (mobile) and 390 - 395 MHz (fixed). A very similar frequency spectrum that there old analogue radios worked on if fact.

So where does the low frequency of 17.6 hertz come from? To quote Wikipedia...

The downlink (i.e. the output of the base station) is normally a continuous transmission consisting of either specific communications with mobile(s), synchronisation or other general broadcasts. All slots are usually filled with a burst even if idle (continuous mode). Although the system uses 18 frames per second only 17 of these are used for traffic channels, with the 18th frame reserved for signalling, Short Data Service messages (like SMS in GSM) or synchronisation. The frame structure in TETRA (17.65 frames per second = 18 frames in 1.02 seconds), consists of 18000 symbols/s / 255 symbols/slot / 4 slots/frame, and is the cause of the perceived "amplitude modulation" at 17 Hz and is especially apparent in mobiles/portables which only transmit on one slot/4. They use the remaining three slots to switch frequency to receive a burst from the base station two slots later and then return to their transmit

So the 17.6 hertz that these people are worrying about is the modulation of a signal that is a millions miles away from the danger zone. The AM signal at 17.6 hertz is not actually there, it is only perceived, that is the signal sounds like AM. The digital modulation takes place inside the radio and is done before the signal is amplified and therefore if there is any radiation at 17.6 hertz it is at so low a level it would be unlikely to penetrate the case of the transceiver never mind some dumb coppers thick skull. If there was a danger zone it would be right next to the antenna on a high powered base station and not from PC Plod's walkie talkie.

Maybe the applicants in these lawsuits will be asked to prove they never used a cell-phone or operated a micro-wave oven, which are far more likely to cause harm. Next time you see a policeman ask if you can see his helmet and find out if it is lined with tin foil. On second thoughts don't. Oh! If you fancy a laugh try Googling TETRA and mind control. Where's that tin foil?

No good deed goes unpunished.

There are times in our lives when we have to make sacrifices. Sometimes they are big sacrifices and sometimes they are small ones. Quite often those we make sacrifices for do not appreciate that we even went out of our way, never mind made a sacrifice to help them out. I am quite obviously not talking about goat, altar and big knife here. What I am talking about is when your mother-in law telephones you in the middle of your favourite TV show or the big match to say her broomstick won't start or she has run out of eye of newt and needs to go shopping.

Quite often I find that when I do make a sacrifice and go out of my way to help someone I end up regretting that even bothered in the first place, something always seems to go pear shaped. Like helping a neighbour whose car would not start then belting my head on his bonnet, grazing my knuckles and flattening the battery in my own car or buying pickled eye of newt when it should have been fresh and getting turned in to a frog. Only occasionally do I actually feel a warm glow and that I did a good deed.

Saturday morning was a bit of a sacrifice for me, to start with I got up too early. When I am working I get up at 5.30am and when I am off work I get up at 7am on a weekday. Working shifts means I do not get too many weekends off and so when possible I like to get a lie in, but it was not to be. I needed to get my fifteen year old daughter Caroline down to the Mold and District Radio Club for the first session of the Foundation course. The sacrifice was bigger than I expected.

As a mad keen SOTA chaser I knew I would miss some points and I made a point of not looking at the 'Alerts' page before I left so as not to feel miserable about it. It was a good job I did not look because the last Belgium summit I need, ON/ON-021 Plantis De Mesnil, was activated by Luc ON6DSL assisted by his XYL Annemie. Video here. Normal people would say "So what? It will be done again." and that is true but to a true Summits on the Air addict like me it is almost painful to see it slip through my fingers. In retrospect I should have fired up one of the rigs in the club shack or put a 40m antenna on the car but I did not think of it at the time.

It was painful getting up early and painful letting an important (to me) activation get away but this time it was worth it. I was very pleased when Caroline said she wanted to do the Foundation course and when Adam also said he wanted to do it I had a big smile on my face, but Caroline really made me feel the proud father at that first session. She has just done her physics exams and so was on the ball with ohm's law and electronic circuits. I had felt it might be too much for her with her very important school examinations, but she seemed to enjoy herself and held her own in the company of the other much older foundation candidates. I came home with a warm glow, that's my girl!

Adam was not able to make that session as he was away on a romantic weekend with his girlfriend but I have few worries about him, one day after getting the foundation course manual he managed 100% in some on line mock exam questions. Adam lives about a mile from us so it would be most useful if he gets his novice licence as we could communicate on any band with no more than hand-held rigs with rubber duck antennas.

I am looking forward to having two new amateurs in the family and I can only hope that my other children follow their example and help to keep the hobby alive. Lets hope that the hobby is still around for our grandchildren to enjoy the way we and in some cases our parents and grandparents have. Now who is going to do that Belguim summit for me?

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Manitoba Amateur Radio Museum

Every now and then the Internet lets you find a magical gem, sometimes that gem may be half a world away and the web is maybe as near as I may ever get as in this case. The Manitoba Amateur Radio Museum in Austin, Manitoba, Canada is a real Aladdin’s cave of radios from across the years. Never mind that the website is in need of a facelift, its the photographs that get the juices flowing.

Located on the grounds of the Manitoba Agricultural Museum, the Manitoba Amateur Radio Museum is Canada’s ONLY amateur radio museum. Dedicated to preserving and exhibiting artifacts related to amateur radio and communication in Canada, the museum has over 4,400 items in it’s collection. In addition to the display collection, the museum is also home to an amateur radio station that has operated since 1980.

If your ever in the area it looks too good to miss. The Agricultural Museum doesn’t look half bad too. Check out ‘Big Roy’ the eight wheel monster tractor.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Of Cheese and children

My wife and I have been enthusiastic users of the radio communications in one form or another for around 30 years and my five children have grown up with radios in the house, in the car and carried portable at every opportunity. When we went on holiday often it was with other radio amateurs and our caravan was never fully set up until all the masts were in place. When we were camping it was quite common when Helen (GW7AAU) and her late friend Eileen (GW1ILZ) went shopping for a call from the shopping aisles of Co-Op or Tescos to come through on 70cms asking if we wanted "Smelly feet cheese or plain cheddar" or if we wanted stripes in our toothpaste. Radio has been part of everyday life for us and although mobile telephones have replaced the brick sizes radios in pockets and handbags it still is. Some people get strange about it but we have lived a lot of our life in full view of local radio amateurs and shortwave listeners.

In a similar fashion computers have been around since my first born arrived on this planet. We started with Vic20s and Commodore64s before graduating to Amigas and finally giving in and buying PCs. After the first computer there was never only one and packet radio ensured I had one C64 with 4 floppy drives when most people still only had cassette tape drives, one to control the rotator, one to log, and three for word processing, photo manipulation and games. It cascaded from there with the whole house wired for a network. The kids friends would come over a LAN party and we all would play Quake or something similar.

All my children have grown up computer savvy and the eldest now has a degree in computer science and works as a web developer. The second eldest is a graphic designer and works with computers. They always had the edge over their schoolmates when it came to IT and computer games, but these things were what their friends were interested in too.

Radio was different none of them ever showed an interest in becoming an amateur and it was a bit disappointing. Then I mentioned that Mold & District ARC was running a course and my eldest daughter and second eldest son have expressed an interest in doing the novice course. That makes me feel so much better, I was beginning to wonder if I had not set the right example to my kids if they did not want to follow my wife and I.

Mold and District Amateur Radio Club meet at 8pm on Wednesday night in Mold Rugby Club. We have our own shack and workshop on site and are looking for Intermediate exam candidates at the moment, but will run Novice and Full licence courses as the need arises.

Seventy MHz US

Good luck to our US friends who have started to petition the FCC to get an allocation on 4m. The migration of broadcast television from analogue to digital has made this possible, but no doubt there will be stiff competition for the band width.

It would probably be a big advantage to those outside the US if they get an allocation that matches that of the majority of countries already on the band, because the large US market will encourage amateur radio manufacturers to include rigs with 70MHz in their line up.

Details of the petition to the FCC can be seen at 70mhz.org and QRZ.com

Over at Southgate ARC news this strange quote had me wondering...
"Essex radio amateur Justin G0KSC will be visiting William AA4XT to install an antenna for 4 metres."
So there is no-one in America who can put up an antenna for 70MHz and they need to fly in someone from the UK. Nice work if you can get it I guess. Enjoy the trip Justin!

Gordon Brown's retirement fund

According to the Daily Mail online the elected idiots we call a government have come up with yet another brilliant plan and it is wait for it... another scrappage scheme. In an effort to get everyone to switch to digital radio they want to give you a 20% trade in on the cost of your new digital radio. There are thought to be 100 million analogue radios in the UK and around half of them are in regular use. The present target is to switch off the FM transmitters in 2015, which may seem a bit soon when a massive backlash against the plans is expected. My opinions have been well documented in this blog before so I will try not to repeat myself instead here are some of the quotes from angry listeners...

Certainly there is greater choice, but the quality is lamentable.

The sound quality is so inferior as to be totally unacceptable when in digital mode.

Digital Radio doesnt work in our area due to the hills, bought one tried it for a week and took it back.

I'm supposed to junk perfectly good audio equipment and buy it all over again? How is that ecologically friendly?

We don't need it, we don't want it, why is it being forced on us? Because somebody is going to make a mint that's why! It's just Gordon Brown's retirement fund.

Assault on batteries

The UK is under pressure to improve the recycling rate for batteries. According to what is being said in various publications we only recycle 3% at present. In an effort to get our recycling rate up to 10% all shops selling batteries will have to provide recycling facilities. This is all well and good but there are numerous issues, to start with a 10% rate is pathetically unambitious. If this is as important an issue as they would have us believe then why such an low figure? why not go for 50% and then ramp it up from there? Then there is the issue that a small corner shop that sells a handful of batteries a week needs to find somewhere to store potentially dangerous used batteries, which could easily cause a fire or leak noxious chemicals.

Although I am keen that we recycle as much as makes sense I have problems with the system we have set up at the moment because it is a joke. My wife's employer is forced by the local council to separate all there wastes in to separate receptacles, for plastics, glass, metals, paper, cardboard, food and garden waste. If they cross contaminate by someone maybe putting a newspaper in the food bin they are fined. Strangely when the waste is collected it is all put into the same refuse wagon and the carefully sorted waste is mixed up. When the collection agency is tackled about it they tell us there is no facility for recycling in the area. Then there is the garden waste issue. Although tons of garden waste is generated on the estate it is all composted on site yet they are still charged by the council for a facility they do not use, because of the size of the estate this is a considerable cost. They are also forced to pay for a licence to dispose of toxic waste, the toxic waste disposed of in the last three years amounted to one fluorescent tube from the kitchens, but they are still paying the same licence fee that some generating hundreds of tonnes of waste would.

So if you want to sell batteries you need to provide recycling facilities and if you provide recycling facilities you will require a licence for toxic waste and pay to have that waste removed. The net result is once shop keepers get wind of this that buying batteries will become difficult and expensive as the pass the costs on to the consumer.

The whole idea is flawed; if you are going to buy some new batteries, who takes the old ones with them? Who waits until the old ones are flat before buying new ones? The answer to reducing battery waste as I see it is to force manufacturers to only produce rechargeable batteries, to make putting batteries in domestic waste a no-no and to collect used cells separately with the domestic collections.