Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Zune dies for leap year

So one of the hot topics on Twitter just now has to do with all of Microsoft's Zune MP3 players unexplainedly bricking at midnight this morning. This should not come as much surprise to those of us who've been around Microsoft a while, though. Microsoft has had persistent problems with clock and calender math for most of their corporate existence. Back in 1988, virtually all applications that used the Microsoft C Runtime Library and had any sort of date or time calculation in it went absolutely bonkers on February 29th because of a bug in MSFT's leap day calculations. Most problems went away on March 1, although some remained. There have been a number of other such bugs in MSFT's history. I'm pretty certain that this particular one is due to the Zune system software simply being unable to cope with today being Day 366 of the calendar year.

If I'm right about this, Zunes should start working again (as if nothing was ever wrong) at midnight. But I'm just guessing that that's the problem.

You'd think after 20 years of making mistakes like this Bill would have learned to force his coders to quality-check calendaring code, but here we are...

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Repeater Footprint Project, Revisited

The Repeater Footprint Project is largely an excuse for me to play with Splat!, but I have a feeling it might be useful, too. It came out of discussions with various people on IRC, as well as listening to various hams on the DuPage Amateur Radio Club VHF machine.

Apparently there's a UK club that has a site that lists each of the repeaters in their area (possibly the whole country) with maps showing where one can expect to be able to reach the repeater. This seems as if it would be a useful thing. The group on the W9DUP repeater also seemed to think so and were opening wondering on the air how one would go about doing that. Now, I happen to know how to go about doing it, but I wasn't able to get a word in edgewise in the ragchew (gotta love VHF ragchewers), so instead I decided just to go ahead and do it.

I started out by creating pages on my ham wiki for each repeater in K5EHX's database, but that proved to be largely unhelpful and I am now looking for an easy way to delete them; in the meantime I suggest you ignore them as they're not being maintained. The bulk of the project is right now in a database, which is accumulating coverage data (by grid square) for each repeater in K5EHX's listings. Along the way I've written an extensive set of validation tests for Tom's database. Here's a list of all the tests currently done:
  • Trustee callsign is a valid ham callsign, using cty.dat to derive callsign validation regexps.
  • If the callsign is a US callsign, the callsign is checked to ensure that it is in ULS and is listed as active.
    • If the callsign is in ULS and was cancelled because the licensee changed callsign, Tom's database is automatically updated with the new callsign if the new callsign is still active.
  • The repeater type field is checked for odd values; people often put strange values in this field.
  • The output frequency is checked against a list of authorized frequencies. Currently this uses US authorizations; a future version will use the country listed in the database to choose the correct list of frequencies.
  • The offset and shift values are parsed against the output frequency to derive an input frequency, which is also validated against authorized bandplans.
    • The US repeater plan is used to try to infer input frequencies when the offset or shift values are left unspecified; when incomplete or discrepant data is found and a corrected value can be inferred, Tom's database is updated automatically.
    • Common errors that are corrected include entering offsets in kHz or 100 kHz steps and entering an absolute frequency insteaed of an offset.
  • Repeaters at zero latitude and longitude are flagged as errors (these are typically due to an entry using a location name that cannot be georesolved).
Entries that pass validation are merged into my repeater database, which is not currently being published, because I haven't figured out how I want to do it yet. Maybe I should offer XML dumps.

Future plans include merging in the IRLP node list, and developing a way to merge in other random repeater listings found on the Internet. I could really use some good ETL software for this, but I haven't found any that I can afford yet. Adding more validation tests is also high on the priority list.

Meanwhile, I have a script running that generates splats (coverage maps) for each repeater in my database, storing for each location and frequency pair (coverage varies by frequency) the least expected path loss from the transceiver location to any point within each gridsquare reachable from that transceiver. This takes about 30 minutes per location/frequency pair, and will complete in about 15 months unless I dedicate more hardware to the project.

Once this is done, I should be able to easily generate a list of every repeater that one could hear, and could work, from any given gridsquare. I used to have a barebones webpage that generated such lists (give it a gridsquare and it would tell you what systems you could work) but I haven't updated it since I refactored the database. I can also generate lists of repeater pairs that might potentially interfere with one another.

The coverage database, once complete, would be of great benefit to anyone who travels and, I would think, also be of significant value to coordinators. I assume most coordinators have similar information, although from what I've heard most coordinators use rule-of-thumb methods to anticipate interference and relatively few have Longley-Rice simulation software or terrain mappers.

(This is a slightly edited copy of an article that appears on my ham wiki, which I recently updated due to attention created by a post on the QRZ forums.)

What's up with the weather?

Yesterday morning, it was, I believe, -1 outside, and the driveway (and also apparently the Indiana Toll Road) was coated in ice.  This morning, it's 35 and the snow and ice are all melting.  Tonight we're supposed to get thick fog.  Tomorrow, it might get as high as 60, but tomorrow evening and Sunday we're supposed to get more snow.

I know that the motto of Illinois weather is "wait five minutes, it'll change", but this is even more erratic than normal.  It's unusual for us to get sub-zero weather in December but we've broken into negativeland several nights in a row the past week or so. 

Methinks there's more to this global warming idea than just some talking heads.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


At the moment, the #2 search on Google Trends is for "brechdurchfall", which is the German word for "gastroenteritis", as best I can figure.  I've found a few articles about norovirus and rotavirus incidents (e.g. this one, in German and about a sports school in Austria if I've read it correctly, and this one, also in German, about unexpectedly sick patients in a hospital). 

We already know that Google Trends can predict the flu.  Is there some sort of outbreak of viral GI disease in German-speaking countries that I've not heard of?

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Replacing Governor Blagojevich

Today's top news story, at least in Illinois, is that Governor Rod Blagojevich has been arrested on a panoply of corruption charges.  I'm not going to opine on the likelihood that he's guilty, at least not now.  I'm more interested in what happens now to Illinois state government, especially considering that we've got an open senate seat right now (which is apparently related to the charges, sad to say) and all sorts of problems for which we really could use an effective state government.  That's a bit challenging when your governor is in FBI custody.

The governor of Illinois is elected to a four year term; the last election was in 2006 and the next will be in 2010.  The state constitution provides that the lieutenant governor (currently Pat Quinn) takes over in the event that the governor is unable to serve because of death, conviction on impeachment, failure to qualify, resignation, or "other disability".  There's also provisions that allow the governor to transfer power temporarily to the lieutenant governor.  As far as I can tell, these are the limit of the ways to remove the governor from office (although "other disability" is not defined in the constitution and I haven't found a statute that clarifies this yet).

Let's look at the options for removing the governor, then.  Death and "failure to qualify" are nonstarters; while a lot of people really dislike Blagojevich, I doubt assassination is a significant probability, and he seems to be in decently good health. Further, he pretty clearly seems to meet the relatively minimal qualifications for the office (25 years of age and three years a resident of the state).  That leaves impeachment, resignation, and "other disability".

Of course, Blagojevich could resign, but I really don't expect him to.  The charges against him and his recent public comments quite frankly leave me wondering about his competence, and so while by all rights he should resign, he should also have known that he was under federal investigation (according to one radio report I heard, he's been subject to wiretaps for nearly two months now) and yet continued to behave as if there was no cause for concern.  So that leaves options for involuntary removal.

Of course, I would prefer that he be impeached.  There's a problem with that.  In order for the legislature to impeach the governor, it has to be in session; it's not right now and won't be again until January 12, 2009, when the 96th Illinois General Assembly, which was elected last November, will meet for the first time.  Of course, the constitution provides for special sessions.  Most special sessions in Illinois are called by the governor, but of course it's unlikely that the governor will call a special session so the legislature can impeach him.  But there's another option: under Article IV, Section 5, the presiding officers of the two houses of the outgoing 95th General Assembly (being Senate President Emil Jones and Speaker Michael Madigan) can convene a special session of the lame-duck legislature by joint proclamation.  So that's one way, and probably the only effective way, we can get rid of him without his active cooperation.

The other option would be under the "other disability" clause.  There's some guidance to be found in 10 ILCS 5/25-2, which sets forth conditions under which an elective office becomes vacant.    Being arrested doesn't seem to be enough, although being convicted would.  Unless Blagojevich pleads guilty at his arraignment today (which I deem highly unlikely), I imagine it'll take several months at least to convict him, so this doesn't provide much help either.

There is probably also a procedure for some group of people in the executive branch to declare that the governor is temporarily unable to perform his duties, similar to the federal process set forth in the 25th Amendment.  However, I haven't yet found a state law that sets forth that process.  Pat Quinn is supposed to have a press conference this afternoon, and I imagine there will be some discussion on that issue then.  (Update: Based on comments Pat Quinn made in his press conference, there is a process by which the Illinois Supreme Court may determine that the governor is temporarily unable to perform the duties of his office.)

Personally, I'd like to see him impeached, and quickly.  I would like to have two senators again, and the best way for that to happen is for us to get Blagojevich out and Pat Quinn in.  I think it's likely that Speaker Madigan will support impeachment; the question is whether Senate President Emil Jones, widely regarded as an ally of Blagoyevich, will also do so.  And of course it's always a challenge to get a lame-duck legislature to do anything.

As a side note, there is no provision for filling a vacancy in the office of Lieutenant Governor; the constitution mandates that the office remain vacant should it become vacant.  If both the offices of Governor and Lieutenant Governor become vacant, the Secretary of State (currently Jesse White) becomes acting governor and is required to hold a joint special election within 60 days to fill both offices.  So if Quinn does succeed Blagojevich, we'll be without a lieutenant governor until 2011.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Linguistically created zombies

A&E just ran a documentary (repeat will be in a couple of hours) about Meth Mountain, a community in northern Alabama that is just overrun with meth addicts.  I didn't watch it, not really planning to.  What got me to blog was one sentence fragment out of the description of the program on A&E's website: "Dr. Mary Holley, an obstetrician whose meth-addicted brother committed suicide and who is now on a mission to clean up Meth Mountain."

On first reading, I took that to mean that Dr. Holley's brother first committed suicide, and then (presumably as a ghost or revenant, or other such thing) embarked on an undead mission to clean up Meth Mountain.  Of course, this reading is not what A&E intended; it's obvious that they meant that Dr. Holley (and not her deceased sibling) is on a mission.

This is a case of an ambiguous antecedant; the pronoun "who" (in "who is now on a mission") is ambiguous, and could refer either to Dr. Holley or to her brother.  In general, when a pronoun is of ambiguous reference, there is a preference for binding it to the most recently used noun phrase to which it could reasonably apply.  Unfortunately, in this case that's Dr. Holley's brother, not Dr. Holley herself, and that creates the unfortunate image of a rampaging meth-addicted zombie trying to chase out all the other meth addicts. 

I'm not sure how to write this noun phrase so as to avoid this ambiguity; in any case, it amused me, and I hope it amuses you too.

Database failure takes out cable in Orlando

WOFL in Orlando, Florida is reporting that Bright House Networks, the cable provider in the Orlando area, is (or at least was, as of a few hours ago) suffering an outage in television service due to a "corrupt database".  The outage only affects television service; reportedly telephone and internet services are unaffected.

So my question is, how does a "corrupt database" interrupt television service on a cable system?  I can see this impacting delivery of encrypted digital channels (the database with the encryption codes might not be accessible) but how would a database be involved in delivery of basic analog cable channel service?

Russ Martin latest casualty as mainstream media continues to crash

So Russ Martin is the latest casualty in the trimming down of mainstream media, as media organizations all across the country wither in the current sorry economic times.  Seems Russ' employer decided to switch to an all-sports format (sports programming is cheaper to produce because you don't have to pay sports figures to come on interviews, while most other celebrities typically expect some sort of honorarium). 

This on the same day that Tribune Co. filed for bankruptcy and the New York Times announced that it was seeking to mortgage its office to raise cash.  And NBC recently announced that it was considering cutting hours, maybe even days, out of its programming schedule.

At least the movie theaters are doing well.  That happened in the 30s, too.

F/A-18 crashes into house

The news is now reporting that a Marine F/A-18 out of Miramar has crashed into a house in San Diego. Apparently, the pilot ejected prior to the crash. I have a message for the pilot.

Pardon my french, but what the fuck are you doing ejecting out of a plane when your plane is on a crash trajectory for a residential neighborhood? Your duty is to protect the citizens of the United States of America. It is your duty, in this situation, to do everything in your power to keep that plane from taking the life of an American citizen. If that means you have to stay at the controls of your malfunctioning plane as it augurs into the terrain, then that's what your duty to the United States called for you to do today. Ejecting from a plane that might crash into an occupied civilian structure, especially over a residential neighborhood, is only excusable if there was no chance of controlling the descent of the plane in any way. What if it had crashed into University High School? How many children would you have killed?

If this pilot ejected from a plane that he had any chance of controlling, and in so doing failed to do his utmost to protect the lives of the citizens of San Diego, I fully expect that he be charged with gross dereliction of duty, and, given that at least three people have died as a result, manslaughter.

P.S. Some people have expressed upset at my tone. Perhaps my ire should be directed more at the Marine Corps, for operating an aviation training facility in a densely populated area. If it comes out that the pilot in this case did absolutely everything humanly possible to control the course of the plane before ejecting, then he has done his duty (provided, of course, that the plane's malfunction is not itself his fault), and the deaths that may well have resulted from this are not truly his fault. But as I first read about this, I was reminded of that news chopper pilot whose tail rotor failed. This is a circumstance in which most people would consider the chopper "uncontrollable". He managed, nonetheless, to somehow wrestle the chopper to a crash landing on top of a commercial building so as to minimize harm. (There's film of the last several seconds of the flight somewhere on the web.) I admit that I hold our servicemen to high standards. Those standards will sometimes require Marines to die for their duty. That's part and parcel of the job, and if you aren't up for that, don't take it.

Update: The Marine Corps has disciplined 13 service members for errors in handling this incident, including relieving four officers from duty. Still no word on what discipline, if any, the pilot will face. It seems that a number of people screwed up rather badly here.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Wikimedia vs. Internet Watch Foundation

The tech media are all abuzz over how the Internet Watch Foundation has recently added a page on Wikipedia to its "list of pages that contain child porn". This has had the effect of causing all web traffic to any Wikimedia site from any customer of the several ISPs that subscribe to the IWF's filtering service to be forced through IWF's proxy filter so they can block access to the (so far) one page that they've found that contains child porn. A side effect of this is that Wikipedia (the English Wikipedia, at least) has had to block all editing from anonymous persons on the affected ISPs, because they cannot "differentiate different users, and block those abusing the site without blocking other people as well."

Most British ISPs voluntary agree to filter web traffic through their networks for content which violates UK law. Most of them use the services of the Internet Watch Foundation, which is a non-governmental organization with close ties to the Home Office and other law enforcement entities, but not a law enforcement organization in and of itself. I haven't been able to dig out the details of the 1996 agreement that created the IWF, but I get the feeling that there was an undertone of "you do this voluntarily or we will force you to do it" and the ISPs agreed to it because they didn't want the negative PR of appearing to be on the side of child pornographers. Anyway, the IWF provides its clients with lists of URLs that contain "unlawful" content, which its clients are required (by contract) to block. They may not manually review the lists, but must use them exactly as provided by IWF; the IWF is the sole party responsible for the lists.

Wikipedia has an article about a 1970s album by the Scorpions (a German hard rock band) titled "Virgin Killer". The original cover for this album featured a naked prepubescent female with a "cracked-glass" effect covering her genitals; this cover was extremely controversial and was rather quickly withdrawn and replaced by a much tamer cover for most distributions, although it is still possible to buy copies with the controversial cover on it, even in the UK.

Someone (anonymously, presumably) reported the page to the IWF as a "webpage containing potentially illegal content". The IWF reviewed the article and concluded that the image "may be illegal in the United Kingdom" and added the article to its blacklist. Doing so forced the subscribers to IWF's blacklist to force all traffic to any site hosted on the same server as (which is to say virtually all Wikimedia sites) to be passed through the filtering proxy in order to detect and block any attempts to access the article. As a side effect, this caused everyone who goes through the filters to appear to Wikipedia's security systems to appear to be coming from the same IP, which significantly undermines Wikipedia's internal security measures; in addition, at least some of the proxy filters are unable to cope with the load and are reportedly generating random page load failures and other problems in addition to blocking access to the page in question.

Somewhat strangely, IWF did not block the image itself; they only blocked the Virgin Killer article and the "image page" for the image. If the image were to appear on another article, that article would be left untouched, and the image would be displayed. The image in question appears on articles on at least four other Wikimedia projects, none of which were being filtered at last report.

Wikipedia has responded with a cavalcade of screeching about the evils of censorship; a handful of editors who have argued for removing the image have been shouted down and in some cases blocked from editing. Although I have seen no public statement from the Foundation, rumor has it that there have been conversations between the IWF and Sue Gardner (WMF's executive director), and the WMF has sent demands to the ISPs to discontinue the filtering. There appears to be no possibility that Wikipedia will consider removing the image, or even diminish its prominence. Some editors even argued for a hard block of all UK IPs "in order to send a message" that censorship is wrong. In addition, the raw inconvenience that has been imposed technically on UK editors has profoundly upset many UK editors.

There's so much to comment on here. On one hand, we have ISPs imposing filtering that their customers haven't specifically asked for, using filter lists from a self-governing third party that appears to be responsible to no one, so as to require the filtering of an image that is almost certainly not illegal under the relevant law. The filtering is done so badly that it fails to block most uses of the content that is alleged to be illegal, and also blocks content which is not alleged to be illegal (specifically, the text of the article about the album, which is not alleged to violate any law at all). Finally, the technical solution used is apparently not robust enough to handle the traffic caused by forcing most of the UK Wikimedia-related traffic through its servers.

On the other hand, we have the ideologically detached Wikipedia community that has steadfastly refused to contemplate that there are topics, and especially images, which, while they should be available, ought to be placed behind "shields" of some sort so that they are not unexpectedly displayed to readers who are likely to be offended by them. The Wikimedia Commons by now quite likely has the largest collection of free porn on the Internet, and there are just a plethora of articles on Wikipedia about thoroughly prurient topics that are certainly of interest to some, but at the same time are not the sort of things that most people will want children exposed to uncontrollably. Wikipedia's community, however, has steadfastly insisted that "Wikipedia is not censored" and thus steadfastly, even defiantly, almost always refuses to conceal, minimize, or shield prurient, offensive, or shocking images. (Thus, if you happen to be reading Wikipedia from work, absolutely do not hit "random article"; you might well end up with an image of gay sex on your screen.)

Now, I'm a pretty committed civil libertarian; I think censorship is wrong, and I object to the imposition of content filtering on anyone's internet connection for any purpose except at the express request of the customer. So it's very much my wish that this particular filtering scheme be attacked on general principles. However, it's clear to me that this filtering scheme is well-established in Britain (it's been in use on at least one of the ISPs there since 2004, based on one article I read) and there doesn't seem to be much public dissent to its use. Not being British I don't have a really big dog in this fight, and there are far worse offenders on this issue than the UK.

I also take issue with the IWF filtering the article instead of the image. Surely their technical people realize that images within a webpage load independently of the webpage itself, and that they can block just the image without blocking the rest of the article. I question why they did not do this in this case, as it would have been the least intrusive means to accomplish this.

On the technical issue regarding the IP appearance issue, the reports are that the IWF is willing to work with the WMF to sort out a solution that avoids this. If I understand the situation, this is just a matter of them ensuring that XFF works correctly in their proxy, and that their proxies are properly registered with the WMF.

The one thing that would have probably rendered this situation less problematic would have been if the IWF had contacted the WMF when it reached the determination that the content was illegal under UK law. Not only could the WMF have advised the IWF on the least intrusive manner to block the image, but they could also have ensured that the necessary forwarding configuration was in place to avoid the disruption that occurred over the past few days. That said, I suspect that had the IWF attempted to contact the WMF, they would have gotten nowhere; it's likely that the WMF would have either ignored the communication, or responded with hostility instead of attempting to cooperate, or to negotiate a compromise solution.

It's my position that this image should not be blocked. The fact that the exact same image is in use on Amazon UK's site without any action taken against Amazon suggests that there's hidden motivations on the IWF's part here. And it seems quite likely that the WMF's general incompetence combined with the complete lack of community leadership within the English Wikipedia will combined to prevent at sort of compromise solution; the WMF has nobody with the competency to negotiate one, and even if they did there is no effective way to impose it on the community because of the lack of leadership within the community. So I strongly suspect that the IWF intends to stand strong on this one, secure in the understanding that this is one they can win.

Go ahead, Jimmy, Sue, and Mike. Prove me wrong. I dare you.

P.S. Other coverage: Seth Finkelstein, Danny Wool

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Savannah cats?

Savannah catSo why are savannah cats the top search right now? Did someone mention them on a TV show or something? They're pretty cats and all that, but why would they be the top search on a Saturday evening otherwise? It's not like they're new on the scene.

(Image by Jason Douglas, from Wikimedia Commons)

Sunday, November 30, 2008


Tonight's dinner featured home-baked challah.  This is the first time in a while I've baked bread (although we had home-baked dinner rolls with Thanksgiving dinner) and I must say it turned out reasonably well for being out of practice, making a slightly sweet and very flaky bread with a crunchy crust that serves very nicely with butter.
  • 2 1/2 cups bread flour
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • 1 tbsp salt
  • 1 package (about 1 tbsp) yeast
  • 2 eggs (room temperature)
  • Water (80 to 100 degrees), about 1 cup
In a mixing bowl, mix flours.  In a glass measuring container, beat eggs and 1/4 cup water; reserve 1/4 cup of liquid and add water to total 1 1/2 cup.  In stand mixer with dough hook combine yeast, one cup of the mixed flours, and half the liquid; blend with dough hook until well-mixed.  Let stand covered about 20 minutes.  Add sugar, salt, remaining liquid, and remaining flour a half cup at a time with mixer on slow, then knead until well-defined dough ball forms, about five minutes.  Raise for one hour or until doubled.  Punch down (by hand or with dough hook), knead into ball, and let sit for ten to fifteen minutes.  Then divide dough into three equal portions.  Shape each portion into a rope (about 14 inches long) and braid ropes.  Brush with reserved egg wash and let rise again for one hour.  Brush again and bake in 400 degree oven for 10 minutes.  Reduce oven to 375 and bake for 10 to 15 minutes more.

This recipe has a lot of "oven bounce"; the dough will double in size or nearly so in the oven.  I baked mine on a Silpat on an airbake cookie sheet, but I imagine just about flat cookware would do.  A baking stone might also be worth a try; unfortunately the only one I have has been used extensively for pizza and likely has baked-in flavors that are not well-suited for non-savory breads. 

The recipe I followed for this also called for 1/4 cup olive oil, which I forgot to add.  The bread was delicious without it, but we'll have to try it with it just to find out which way we like better.  The oil would go in at the same time as the remaining egg-water mixture, I would assume.  I'm also going to try using this recipe, or one very similar to it, to make bread bowls for soup.

Update: Made bread bowls tonight with this recipe but with the added olive oil.  The oil is a definite improvement when used as a bread bowl, but I fear it would diminish the quality of the bread as a "tear-apart" loaf (as one would expect for challah).  It really changes the texture (and to some degree the flavor) of the bread.  You'll have to experiment on your own to see how you feel about it.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Is it safe to edit in Wikipedia?

I normally don't write about Wikipedia, but of course I used to write more about it and so I still get search hits for the Wikipedia-related content in my blog.  A recent search that did hit was "Is it safe to edit in a wikipedia".  The simple answer is "probably, but you can't be sure".

I'm going to assume that the searcher was interested in the English Wikipedia.  There are lots of other Wikipedias, very few of which are read by anyone anyway and so editing one of them is of virtually no consequence whatsoever.  I seem to recall that some months ago one of the lesser-known Wikipedias was completely subverted by a gaming clan and used by them as a message board for quite some time until someone noticed and cleaned up the mess they made.  Obviously, someone who tried that on one of the major projects wouldn't last long.

But back to the English Wikipedia.  It is not entirely safe to edit Wikipedia, although exactly how unsafe depends mainly on what you edit, and where you live.  If you should live in a country, such as Thailand, in which lese majeste is a crime, and you should happen to edit Wikipedia so as to speak ill of the King, you might find yourself wanted by the authorities as a result.  The same would be true if you were to edit Wikipedia so as to forward holocaust denial; this could make you subject to arrest in countries, such as Austria, where holocaust denial is a crime.  A way in which this could be unexpectedly problematic is if you should make edits which are legal where you live, but which offend the law of some other country which you then later travel to.  Of course, you can avoid this risk by not editing topics in manners that are illegal in places in which you are likely to travel to. 

There's also the risk that you'll edit a topic in a way that offends a wealthy or powerful person, who will then seek to sue you for defamation as a result.  This could happen even if you make an innocuous edit to an article which contains defamatory content elsewhere, because legally when you hit "save" you're taking responsibility for the entire text of the article, not just the part you changed, and so if six sections down the article says that Jack Doe is a child-molester you are on the hook if Jack decides to go after you, even though you didn't think to check for that.  I don't think anyone has actually been sued in this way yet, but it's a matter of time before it happens.  And there have been lawsuits over Wikipedia content, although none that have gone all the way to trial as far as I know.

Finally, there's the risk of being stalked.  If you reveal any personal information along the way as you edit Wikipedia, there's the chance that one of the handful of people who hang about Wikipedia looking for targets will latch on to you and stalk you.  This is more likely if you edit one of the topics that these people monitor; unfortunately, often these people stake out topics that one wouldn't expect to be "risky" (they're often ones with personal connections to them).  If you should offend their inscrutable sensitivities, they may seek to identify your full name, residence, place of business, or other personal information and then stalk or harass you for the "offense" of making "inappropriate" edits to "their" articles.

Unfortunately, Wikipedia is not very open about the identities of the handful of people who are known to have stalked or harassed editors, or what actions tend to set such people off.  The Wikipedia community has refused calls to warn editors of the risks of editing, so quite a few people have been caught badly unawares as a result.

You may also be harassed on the site itself, but that's not really a safety issue; the worst these people will typically do to you is annoy you, piss you off, and perhaps if you're especially unlucky ban you from the site.  If you make the mistake of editing under your real name, you may find that your reputation will be slightly damaged as Wikipedia will gleefully publish all sorts of defamatory content in perpetuity about its editors and former editors, so if you're concerned about this admittedly minor problem, you might want to refrain from editing under your real name.  A good idea anyway, for reasons given above.

All in all, there's a small but not entirely neglible risk of real harm from editing Wikipedia, and people considering doing so really should weigh the benefits (which, due to Wikipedia's rather messed up community, are sadly quite low) against the risks before deciding to participate.  In any case, I would encourage those considering editing Wikipedia to do so pseudanonymously, to refrain from revealing any personal information on the site, and to keep their "Wikipedia" existence as separate from their other online activities, and offline identity, as possible. 

For more on the risks and problems of Wikipedia, see the Wikipedia Review discussion site.

Spaghetti sauce

Tonight's dinner was spaghetti, mainly because I'm tired from the past few days and also because I had Italian sausage that needed to be used up before it went bad.

Here's the sauce recipe:
  • One pound ground beef
  • One pound mild Italian sausage
  • One red onion, diced
  • One pound fresh mushrooms, sliced
  • One tablespoon butter
  • Three cloves garlic, pressed in garlic press or diced fine
  • Three bay leaves
  • One can Red Gold petite diced tomatos
  • One can Red Gold tomato sauce
  • 1/2 tsp adobo (Mexican seasoning)
  • Mexican oregano, black pepper, and sea salt to taste
In skillet, brown Italian sausage.  In same skillet, brown ground beef.  About half way through browning ground beef, add red onion.  When beef is browned and onion is clear, remove and set aside.  In same skillet, sauté mushrooms with butter and adobo until mushrooms are cooked.  Mix all ingredients in large saucepan and simmer over low heat at least 15 minutes.  Remove bay leaves before serving.

I've recently discovered adobo, a Mexican seasoning that seems to be a mix of salt, pepper, oregano, and garlic, along with other things I'm not as clear on.  (I don't have the brand linked, but the brand I do have doesn't appear to have a web presence.)  I've also discovered that Mexican spices are a fraction of the cost of those sold by traditional sellers like McCormick's.  For example, I bought a honking huge canister of celery salt in the "Mexican spices" section for $3, which is half the price of a canister a third the size from McCormick's in the regular spices section.  I can't tell any quality difference (if anything, the Mexican varieties are better), so really I don't know what McCormick's is up to with that.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Amateur radio software for Internet use

I see this search quite a bit.  It's kinda vague, when you think about it, as there's several ways that the Internet and amateur radio intersect.

First, there's methods for using the Internet to control an amateur radio.  The best-known of these is probably Echolink, which allows hams who validate with them to use an application to control other people's radios, or sometimes to link into repeaters.  A number of the various rig control programs can be used over remote desktop control programs; a discussion of various methods people have used to accomplish this is here.  I've also heard of people using Asterisk as a component of a remote rig control solution (as well as as a component of a repeater controller, apparently).

Next, there are applications whose main function is to link distant stations to one another.  The main one of this is IRLP; I've heard rumors of others but haven't seen anything of substance on any of them.  The typical use of IRLP is to extend the range of a voice repeater group beyond that possible via line-of-sight radio links.  APRS-IS servers serve a similar purpose for the APRS data protocol.

The next category would be applications which use the Internet to facilitate activities related to amateur radio, but which do not directly involve going on the air.  Probably the largest group of such applications are those related to QSL logging and the electronic submission of such logs to various QSL bureaus, of which there are so many that I can't begin to count them all, and since I don't use any of them I won't bother naming any. 

The one category you won't find are applications that facilitate accessing the Internet from an amateur radio.  That's because under current regulations there are too many regulatory problems with it, as I've talked about before.

11 meter repeater

I got a hit the other day on a search referral for "11 meter repeater".  Of course, "11 meters" is the common name for Citizens Band radio, more commonly known as CB.  CB is part of the so-called "personal radio services", a group of allocations made by the FCC that allow unlicensed persons to use radio communications for "personal" purposes.  CB is the best known of these, popularized in the 1970s as part of "trucker culture" by movies like Smokey and the Bandit, TV shows like BJ and the Bear, and songs like "Convoy".  CB has a well-earned reputation for extremely poor operating practice, overpower operation, noisemakers, and all sorts of other frankly antisocial behaviors that make CB less than maximally useful for the purpose for which it was originally envisoned.

Repeater stations are stations that receive and automatically retransmit communications typically in order to extend the usable range over which people can communicate.  Repeater stations are widely used by amateurs (who are permitted to use them on all bands 10 meters and shorter, with some restrictions in 10 meters, 6 meters, and 2 meters); there are thousands of them out there.  Repeater stations are also used in many of the private fixed & mobile services (i.e. business and public safety uses), and in the General Mobile Radio Service, another personal radio service that requires only very minimal licensing.  However, the regulations that control CB radio in the United States do not allow repeater stations.

Now, there's another type of "11 meter repeater", though.  It seems that there's a small number of low-power stations that use channels between 25.87 and 26.47 MHz for "broadcast remote pickup stations".  These are small stations used by broadcasters for remote operations, and may be used as repeaters with a 2.5 watt emission limit.   It's possible that a unit such as one of these might be called an "11 meter repeater", although I rather doubt it.

11 meters is, or at least was, also used by various federal agencies, although most of these uses have moved to other bands due to heavy interference from CB users; the cheap illegal linears that many of them use to get "MO POWA" causes them to splatter all over the place and renders much of the adjoining frequencies useless much of the time.

This particular search hit came from an IP owned by the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry.  It seems unlikely that this particular governmental unit would have a broadcast license.  I've checked ULS for licenses issued in Louisiana for the range of 26 to 28 MHz (which covers all of 11 meters) and there are a few, but all of them are either broadcast stations (broadcast remote pickup stations) or radio repair or sales shops.  So I have to wonder just what our dear friends in the State of Louisana are interested in 11 meter repeaters for…

Friday, November 14, 2008

Morse code for your phone

This one comes from a search for "ham radio morce code for windows phone".  I'm not 100% certain what the searcher was looking for here. 

The most obvious would be software for Morse code training that can run on a Windows cell phone.  There is apparently an application called "MorseMaster" for the Windows Mobile PocketPC.  I have no idea if it's any good, and this post is no endorsement.  Other than this app, I'm not aware of any Morse training app that runs on a cell phone, and is probably not that viable on the mobile web platform.  I've heard rumors of someone doing one for the iPhone but haven't actually seen any evidence that it exists.

Another possibility would be a Morse code ringtone generator; there are quite a few of these out there (the one I linked is just the first one I found).  This appears to be a somewhat popular thing to do, and is sorta cool in a steampunk sorta way.

It seems rather less likely that someone is asking for the ability to actually send or receive Morse via cellphone.  This seems like a rather useless capability to have, and I can't think of any real incentive to do it.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

10 meter repeater range

I've written about 2 meter repeater range before, and actually this is an area I spend not a small amount of time fiddling with, what with my ongoing splat project to generate coverage details for every repeater in Tom's database.  However, there's a big difference between 2 meters and 10 meters when it comes to range, due to the difference between VHF and HF.

Two meters is a VHF band.  As such, it is mostly line-of-sight.  2 meters is somewhat prone to various long-distance effects, mainly in the summer, due to sporadic E skip, ducting, or other phenomena.  There's a site that provide nice real-time estimates of VHF propagation by examining APRS packet hops.  However, for the most part these effects are unpredictable and sporadic, and do not reflect the normal state of affairs.  When we talk about range for a two meter repeater, or any repeater operating in VHF or above, it's going to be based on the radio horizon without much regard to the possibilities of skip.

There are also repeaters in six meters, also considered a VHF band; six is more prone to skip than two, and can pretty reliably be expected to skip in certain directions at certain times of the year, depending on where you are.  However, the number of six meter repeaters is much smaller than that of two meter repeaters, probably because of the larger antennas required for good operating performance.

However, the search that prompted this article was seeking information on "ten meter repeater range".  Ten meters is an HF band, and as an HF band is much more amenable to skip.  In fact, when the sunspot cycle isn't in the doldrums like it is now, ten meters is pretty consistently a worldwide band; it is quite possible to work a contact all the way around the world with just a few watts if you know what you're doing.  So while the "space wave" component of a ten meter repeater is going to be substantially similar to that of a six meter or two meter repeater, the "sky wave" component will be completely different.  You can use splat, or any other line-of-sight (or Longley-Rice, preferably) modeling tool, to get a pretty good prediction of the space wave component of a ten meter station's listening zone.  For the sky wave component, though, you have to look into ionospheric modeling, which is much more complicated and less predictable.  In practice, a ten-meter repeater operator should assume and expect worldwide exposure and plan accordingly.

There are only nine repeaters in Tom's database that operate in 10 meters, and one of them is a crossbander.  I haven't splatted any of them yet; only one of them is in the United States (the crossbander) and I don't have terrain data for non-US locations anyway.  If you happen to have a 10 meter repeater, please consider adding it to Tom's database.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Dongle, dongle everywhere

I see a good deal of traffic looking for information about DVSI's AMBE and IMBE vocoders.  Not surprising; these vocoders are at the heart of D*STAR and APCO 25 (respectively), and I've blogged about both before (APCO 25/IMBE here, D*STAR here).  As D*STAR is becoming increasingly popular with hams, and APCO 25 is increasingly widely deployed in public service radio, it's not surprising that people are looking for ways to decode these signals.

Unfortunately, they're not going to find it.  DVSI refuses to release much information about their vocoders, and virtually everyone using them is using the DVSI-provided DSP chip, which has been readlocked so you can't suck the program out of it.  I haven't heard of anyone selling an IMBE dongle in the end-user market, although there may be IMBE add-on devices for some scanners; check with your manufacturer.  For AMBE, there is the "DV Dongle", a USB dongle that contains a DVSI AMBE chip.  In theory, it should also be possible to cannibalize an AMBE or IMBE chip from a radio that had one and interface it; there should be enough information in the market to do that, at least, especially since reportedly both chips are standard DSP chips with known interfacing characteristics.  There are also reports of AMBE and IMBE boards for use in a PC, but at very high prices ($1000 and up).

The tightly controlled trade-secret status of these decoders makes it impossible, of course, for a third party to write a compatible codec.  This is, of course, deliberate by DVSI; they have a captive market and they'd like to keep it that way.  IMBE's widespread adoption within APCO 25, which is all-but-mandatory in public service now gives them a lucrative cash cow, much of which comes from Department of Homeland Security grants to improve national readiness in the event of terrorist attack.  Just how much economic rent is being paid (mostly by taxpayers) to DVSI for this monopoly?

(Updated to correct AMBE/IMBE confusion.  Sorry about that.)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Weird ham radio hats

Oddly enough, my blog is number two for this search, even though I've never talked about hats in particular.  I'm not much of a hat wearer, let alone a weird hat wearer, so I don't really have much experience with hats, ham radio hats, weird hats, or especially weird ham radio hats.  That said, probably the weirdest ham radio specific hat I've heard of is the guy (who may not actually exist) who mounted an antenna on his hat.  This is a pretty bad idea, in general; RF energy is not good for the body in general, and the brain in particular, and putting a radiator next to your head is just not a really good idea.  See also this blog post, where someone did actually put an antenna in a hat....

My experience is that most hams that wear hats will wear ball caps with their callsign applied in those fuzzy letters you've been able to get from T-shirt customization shops since the mid-70s.  A few will have had it properly embroidered, but that's unlikely.  A more likely combination will be a ball cap with the callsign applied using mailbox letters; for some reason hams are inordinately fond of mailbox letters (you know, the ones made of metallic foil on adhesive, typically gold on a black background) and use them to decorate their cars, their stations, and just about anything else they can find.  The rest will wear a service cap from whatever military unit they served in back in the day.

Of course, really the weirdest are the headgear these guys (I think they're guys) wear.  But that's their business.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Alternative methods of oil production

Another recent search phrase is "what other methods do we get oil".  I'll take this to be an inquiry into methods of oil production other than via drilling into underground resevoirs and pumping the oil therein out.

There are about four alternative sources for petroleum (or petroleum-like substances that are usable as fuel): the extraction from oil sands and shales, the conversion of either natural gas or coal into a petroleum-like substance, and the conversion of organic waste matter into petroleum by depolymerization, and direct biofuel production.

The first method is not widely used simply because it is still cheaper to obtain oil by drilling.  There are huge reserves of petroleum locked up in oil-bearing mineral deposits (oil sands and shales) far more than believed to exist in underground resevoirs, which simply haven't been exploited because of the high costs of recovery.  As drillable reserves exhaust, eventually the price of oil will rise to the point that exploiting these reserves will presumably become cost-effective. 

Converting natural gas or coal reserves into liquid fuel has been exploited at times, usually by nations who had been cut off from the world petroleum market by war (Nazi Germany) or economic sanctions (South Africa).  As a result, the possible processes are reasonably well-developed, but not widely used because they are not terribly efficient.  Natural gas conversion may also enable more effective exploitation of gas fields that are too remote to be effectively exploited currently due to the difficulty of transporting the natural gas.

Depolymerization has the theoretical possibility of converting nearly any organic waste (from petroleum coke to ordinary garbage) into petroleum or at least a petroleum-like liquid hydrocarbon fuel, using heat and pressure.  As with the other methods above, these approaches require a lot of energy, and also tend to be rather polluting.  Unlike the other methods above, depolymerization does not draw down the earth's limited oil feedstocks, but instead draws on various waste streams (which would otherwise be landfilled or incinerated), a substantial fraction of which represent the consumption of renewables.

The final method is by direct production of biofuels such as ethanol, methanol, and various vegetable oils, which may then be modified into so-called biodiesel.  This also represents a renewable source; however, the fuel use of agricultural production competes with the use of the same for food, which could drive up the price of food and may increase the risk of food shortages.  The earth's total capacity to produce crops is limited, and many of the methods that have been used in the past to increase that capacity are energy-intensive; as a result some (in fact most, presently) biofuel production methods actually consume more energy than they produce.

None of these methods is generally cost-effective relative to drilling, although the differential costs are getting narrower as the price of drilled crude increases and the costs of production of the alternative drops as technology improves.  All of the alternatives are in limited use due to local conditions that favor them (usually legal in nature), but none is widespread.  In practice, the existence of these alternatives means that we'll continue to have "petroleum" for a long time—but not necessarily at a price we'll be all that comfortable with.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Name the two states which are smaller than many countries in some of the larger states

I've now had two or three searches hit my blog on "name the two states which are smaller than many countries in some of the larger states".  Of course, my blog matches on on this because of this post, which was itself a response to a search referral.

States don't, in my experience, contain countries, at least not as I understand the terms.  So I don't understand what is meant by "many countries in some of the larger states" because states don't have countries.  So let's assume this is a typo, and the intended word is "counties".  States do contain counties (except for Alaska, which has "boroughs", and Louisiana, which has "parishes").  The largest county (by area) is San Bernardino County (in California), which checks in at 20,052.50 square miles of land area (most of it mostly empty desert).   There are three states that are smaller in area than this: Connecticut (14,356 square miles), Delaware (6,446 square miles) and Rhode Island (4,002 square miles).  I don't know which of these three is the desired answer to this particular trivia question, so you'll have to pick two of the three and take your chances.  I suggest using Delaware and Rhode Island, just because they're the two smallest states.

As to where this question came from, I have no idea.  Perhaps someone will tell me.

P.S. I'm assuming the inquiry is with respect to area.  It doesn't make that much sense if you do it with respect to population.  The two largest counties in terms of population are Los Angeles County, California (9,948,081) and Cook County, Illinois (5,288,655).  Only eight states are larger than Los Angeles County in population, and only twenty larger than Cook County.

P.P.S. Corrected flipped wording which I thought I fixed previously but apparently not.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Christian Principles in an Election Year

This isn't from my church or anything; just something I saw on the web.  It's hard to argue much with these, at least in principle; you can quibble with the details of the phrasing.
  1. War is contrary to the will of God.
  2. God calls us to live in communities shaped by peace and cooperation.
  3. God created us for each other, and thus our security depends on the well being of our global neighbors.
  4. God calls us to be advocates for those who are most vulnerable in our society.
  5. Each human being is created in the image of God and is of infinite worth.
  6. The earth belongs to God and is intrinsically good.
  7. Christians have a biblical mandate to welcome strangers.
  8. Those who follow Christ are called to heal the sick.
  9. Because of the transforming power of God’s grace, all humans are called to be in right relationship with each other.
  10. Providing enriched learning environments for all of God’s children is a moral imperative.
The world would be a better place if more people actually led their lives guided by these ten principles (or a close enough approximation as fits one's beliefs about the supernatural).  Whether or not it's an election year.

Don't forget to vote!

Why is There a Lack of Civility in the World?

(This is another post inspired by a search referral.)

Many years ago, Robert Heinlein presents, in his novel Friday, the thesis that the spread of incivility is indicative of a failing society.  There is probably merit to this; as circumstances become regularly more dire, people are more likely to revert to their more natural survivalist behaviors, which include a tendency to be suspicious of those not related to oneself.  The whole notion of of living in cities (which is what "civil" means, fundamentally) with people to whom one is not related is artificial, learned behavior that has to be taught to and reinforced in each generation.  So the question is, have we gotten less good at teaching and reinforcing civility in the past generation?

It's probably too soon to say for sure, but I'm concerned that this might be the case.  From where I stand, the world changed in 1985, when Elmo first showed up on Sesame Street.  Elmo is aggressively self-centered and largely unconcerned about anyone but himself; he is fundamentally selfish and has been teaching children to be self-centered brats since 1985.  Prior to that, virtually all child-oriented television has emphasized cooperation, friendship, and respect of the other; Elmo teaches none of these virtues, and (as anyone who pays attention to such things knows) Elmo now commands nearly half the airtime in your average episode of Sesame Street.  A study reported on the radio here some months ago reported that today's teenagers and young adults (who would have been exposed to Sesame Street starting after 1985) test higher on metrics for narcissism than do prior generations.  Other studies have reported no change, however, and this remains a debated topic.

We certainly are seeing an increase in people's concern about broader issues, especially with younger people, but it's largely impersonal things such as "the environment".  A concern for a depersonalized environment, no matter how deeply held, doesn't necessarily translate into a concern for the feeling of one's fellow man, and in fact I've seen quite a bit of grossly uncivil conduct by committed environmentalists, who feel that it's justified to be mean to evil polluters because they're, well, evil.  The gross personal selfishness and lust for money that has captivated the national consciousness since the mid-1980s also contributes to a lack of civility.  The encrustation of the upper crust with its protected children of privilege who do not, and will never have to, work for their keep also contributes, as they have grown to expect their privilege without accepting any of the social responsibility that only a few decades ago was expected of those of means. 

I'm hoping that we're starting to grow out of this phase; to some degree the outcome of tomorrow's election will (in my mind) be a bellwether for this (it's plainly obvious to me that Obama/Biden is far more concerned about civility than McCain/Palin, whose entire campaign strategy has been rife with incivility).  Only time will tell for certain.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

What Will Happen to Amateur Radio If Obama Is Elected

I must admit I gain much inspiration from looking at referrals; the search keys people use often inspire.  I'm doing this one today because the election is just over a day away now and there might actually be someone undecided out there looking for guidance.  Unfortunately, I can't offer much.

I haven't heard word one from either Obama or McCain regarding amateur radio.  The FCC Commissioners are, of course, appointed by the President, and so in theory whether we have Obama or McCain in the Oval Office will presumably at some point have some effect on who the FCC commissioners are, but that said it is very rare indeed that a Commissioner actually gets involved in a matter related to ham radio.  Nor has either candidate, as far as I can find, ever taken a strong position for or against any legislative issue with any well-defined relation to ham radio.

However, in a broader sense, I think Obama is likely to be ever so slightly better for ham radio than McCain.  There are two reasons for this.  First, McCain has spent many years doing the bidding of the large telecoms.  If it came down to a large telecom wanting a patch of spectrum that hams currently have, I have slightly less faith that a McCain-appointed commissioner would give a moment to listen to the concerns and interests of hams, or take the time to understand ham radio's long history of public service, before ruling in favor of one of McCain's friends in Big Telecom.  However, this just isn't a very likely scenario.

Second, Obama's positions on issues related to science and education seem to me to be more favorable to restoring interest in engineering and technology with America's youth than do McCain's (who favors widespread cuts to virtually all forms of research funding).  As such, I think Obama's platform might just have a side effect of increasing interest in ham radio as an interesting hobby to pursue.  This factor is pretty tenuous as well, though.

There's a third issue, one which is near and dear to many of hams: the dreaded CC&R.  This is a topic that goes beyond hams, of course; fighting with the HOA seems to be a pastime of a fair portion of homeowners these days, over issues as varied as clotheslines, flagpoles, playsets, and parking.  I haven't heard either candidate say anything to this issue either, and I can't say that I have a feel on where either candidate would stand with respect to legislation that might tend to weaken the power of homeowner's associations in general, or specifically the federal legislation that would be needed to expand the scope of PRB-1 to invalidate conflicting CC&Rs (the way existing law already does for DishTV).  I have to call the candidates a wash on this issue.

So if you're still waffling on who you're going to vote on, and you're a ham, I'm afraid that this issue doesn't give you a whole lot of guidance, and quite frankly if you're swayed by any of the above I suspect you weren't really that undecided to begin with.  You still have 36 hours to make up your mind, in any case.  Don't forget to vote (if you haven't already).

Paying Taxes as E-Bay Seller

So many of the searches that hit my blog seem to be people trying to find answers to questions.  Being the nice person that I am, I try to provide answers, so that the next person who has that question will, maybe, find my answer and find it useful.

So this person was apparently trying to find out about paying taxes as an E-Bay seller.  Well, the short story is, yes, you have to pay taxes.  If you are an occasional seller, then you are expected to report the entire amount of income you received from the sale of merchandise on E-Bay as "miscellaneous hobby income" on whatever line it is for that on whichever for you file.  However, if you should happen to forget to report it, it's extremely unlikely that the IRS will ever find out, and I imagine most people who are supposed to report such income never actually do.

On the other hand, if you're in the regular business of selling stuff on E-Bay, then you're expected to file a business return, typically Schedule C of Form 1040.  This method of filing at least allows you to deduct the cost of whatever you sold against what you were paid for it, which means that you'll end up paying less tax.  You will, however, have to pay self-employment taxes on the net income of your business venture.

Also, if you sell to someone within your own state, and your state collects sales tax, you may be required to collect sales tax from whomever you sold to and forward that on to your state's revenue department.  Check with a local tax advisor on this, as some states exempt so-called "occasional sales" from the obligation to collect sales tax, while others do not.

In practice, a lot of the people who are supposed to pay taxes on E-Bay profits do not, as much of their income is undocumented.  This is actually a pretty big loophole, costing the government as much as ten billion dollars a year, and much hay was made about this a while back when Chris Dodd proposed to make it harder to conceal income derived from online sources.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Lava Lamps, Revisited

A recent search term that found its way to my blog was "How many Lava Lamps have been sold?".  My blog is the fifth hit for the search, because of this article (which doesn't even begin to answer the question).

The easy answer, of course, is "lots"; they've been around for over 40 years, and have quite the following.  There are also lots of "imitation" lava lamps of some sort or another, and I don't know if the inquirer was interested in the imitation variety or not.  For the genuine article, sold by Lava World International, well, I haven't found a direct answer (and I'm not really interested in calling them or stopping by their factory, which is just a few miles away from my house, or at least was in 2007), but a UK website reports that they peaked at seven million units a year in the late 60s, then dropped off to a few hundred a week in the late 70s and through the 80s, but rebounded to around two million a year in the 90s.  So I'd hazard to guess that they sold 20 to 30 million in the first peak and maybe 5 to 7 million in the post-80s resurgence. 

We have two or three lava lamps around here somewhere, although I haven't seen any of them since we moved.  Hopefully they haven't frozen or gotten broken or anything.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Pet peeve of the day

People who use "kilowatt" as phonetic for "K".  The canon is, of course, "kilo", and whenever I heard someone use "kilowatt" I automatically think "KW" (instead of "K"), which of course is quite bad when trying to copy someone's callsign....

There are plenty of rants about "cutesy phonetics" on the Intarwebs, and while in general I agree with the notion that one should use "conventional phonetics", I don't generally get too torqued over nonstandard ones as long as they're not confusing.  The problem with "kilowatt" is that it's confusing.  And it's just a bad idea to break a convention in a way that is going to be confusing.  Please don't do it; the rest of us will thank you.

Friday, October 24, 2008

McCain and Amateur Radio, revisited

An anonymous commenter recently said that someone has somewhere suggested that John McCain is "not a supporter" of ham radio.  Now, I don't know if this is true or not; I haven't seen McCain (or, for that matter, Obama) say anything at all about ham radio and have no idea what either of them think of the amateur radio service.  On the other hand, McCain has served on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation for a long time, including as its chairman from 1997 to 2001 and again from 2003 to 2005.  This committee has jurisdiction over, amongst other things, the Federal Communications Commission, and would be the committee assigned to hear any bills related to amateur radio.  It is likely that in the course of his membership in, and leadership of, this committee he has taken positions on matters of interest to ham radio.  Unfortunately, I don't have any specifics as to what those would have been.

So, what's the short and skinny here?  Is McCain a friend of ham radio?  A foe?  Or just indifferent?  It won't change my vote, and I doubt it'll change many other people's votes, but surely someone knows....

Google Trends, and the cultural vapidity of the Internet

I watch Google Trends from time to time, mainly to get ideas to blog about.  And what I've been singularly impressed with is the vapidity of most of the top searches.  The top searches at most times are almost always related to sports or entertainment celebrities.  For example, at this moment the top ten searches are:
  1. "Isaiah Thomas" (sports figure, recently attempted suicide)
  2. "Bumetanide" (a diuretic which is in the news because some sports figures have been abusing it)
  3. "Chrissy Popadics" (a cheerleader at Boise State who was recently proposed to by a Boise State player during a post-game interview; the marriage is this weekend)
  4. "Ashley Todd" (a Republican campaigner who concocted a hoax in which she claimed to be assaulted by an Obama supporter)
  5. "Water pills", presumably connected with #2 above
  6. "Lychee", an Asian fruit which is apparently suffering a poor harvest for some reason
  7. "Hit a Jew Day", which I blogged about earlier
  8. "Waffle House Wedding", which I really can't make any sense out of, other than perhaps this YouTube video
  9. "Scleroderma", which is presumably in the news because actress Dana Delany just joined the board of the Scleroderma Research Foundation
  10. "Merl Saunders", recently deceased Grateful Dead keyboardist.
So, out of the ten top searches, four are sports related, one is politics, one is about food, one is about teenagers being stupidly bigoted (or two if you count 20-year-old Ashley Todd as a teenager), one apparently about an internet meme, one is about a movie celebrity, and the last about a music celebrity.

At best four of these have something to do with the real world, and that's generous as I'm counting Ashley Todd as "having something to do with the real world" even though it's pretty clear that Todd's connection to the real world is pretty tenuous.  And really even the scleroderma activity is because a celebrity said something about it, not because of any real interest or news.

Still, three or four out of ten is better than average.  There's been plenty of times that the hot list has been completely taken over by vapid celebrity nonsense. 

Then again, this shouldn't be a suprise.  Wikipedia demonstrates the same concentrations of interest, after all.

"Hit a Jew Day"

A group of students at Parkway West Middle School in suburban St. Louis are in trouble for organizing "Hit a Jew Day".  Apparently the sixth graders there decided to organize an unofficial "spirit week" that started off with "Hug a Friend Day" (harmless enough) and was followed by "High Five Day" (also harmless).  However, Wednesday heralded "Hit a Tall Person Day"; at least they can fight back, I suppose, and beside discrimination against the vertically gifted hasn't been historically a serious problem.  Still, a "spirit day" activity based on violence seems iffy at best. 

Then came Thursday's "Hit a Jew Day".  One wonders what Friday was going to be.  "Spike a Kike"?  At least that rhymes.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Silly APRS idea

This came up on freenode #hamradio channel: little floating APRS buoys set afloat in the ocean, with a GPS receiver and a digipeater.  You'd have to program them to alter their operation based on where they are, because APRS frequencies vary around the globe, and in some places operations might not even be permissable.  Getting a few operating in the North Pacific Gyre could provide interesting scientific data to boot, especially for those people tracking flotsam patterns in the Pacific.

No idea what it would cost to build a APRS buoy, and certainly nothing I'm planning on doing any time soon, but could be interesting.

Sunday, October 12, 2008


I got gpredict running on my new Linux desktop box here tonight.  My daughter is utterly fascinated by this and got a kick out of watching the satellites fly by on the map.  I've promised to let her listen for the next AO-51 pass, which is something like 8:30 tomorrow morning.  We tried for FO-29 earlier, but didn't pick up anything.  From what I am reading, FO-29 only operates when it's in daylight, and on the last pass here it was in eclipse for most of the pass.

More September QST comments

Time to wrap up the September QST; October's has been here for two weeks and I haven't even cracked it yet.

The TinyTrak4 looks like an interesting device.  It's being sold mainly as a position encoder, but the article indicates that it's an "empty vessel" which means these could be very interesting devices to play with.  I might end up using one of these in lieu of a general purpose computer for my APRS station; I'm sure they draw less power than a GPC does.

I was disappointed that the article on "stomping out pesky wall warts" didn't discuss providing voltages other than 12V, nor did it discuss multisourcing.  Of course, can't expect too much of that with what is basically a thinly-disguised product review.  This article didn't really add much to my knowledge on DC power systems; it just presented a couple of load center options, which I suppose is marginally useful to someone.

The next article is on software-defined radio.  I'm not sure what the lead time for QST publication is; part of Joel Hallas' (W1ZR) article is quite similar to some of what I wrote here back in May, although his article has better pictures.  I'm pleased that he hit on several of the issues that I care about: open source, flexibility to reprogram in the field.  I've noticed that there's a lot of general misunderstanding on the SDR issue; I routinely hear people on the local repeaters confuse SDRs, which are still rather rare in the amateur community, with software-controlled radios, which is virtually every radio on the market, or with radios equipped with DSP filters, which is an increasingly large segment of the high-end transceiver market. 

There is an interesting article by Jan Bruinier (DL9KR), who may well be the first ham to work 100 countries in 70 centimeters, a feat which is just about impossible to accomplish by any means other than EME, and it's quite a challenge even then.  I would love to do EME, but the equipment required for it is well out of my budget, and I doubt that my neighbors would appreciate the funky looking antennas required, either. 

Finally, there is a brief mention of WSPR, something else I've mentioned before.  This remains on my interest list, although I'm pretty sure that I'll set it up originally in 30 meters.  I've found an antenna design that ought to work on 30m at my location with only minimal tuning losses.

That wraps up the September issue; I'm not going to talk about the 80 pages of ads at the back.  If you want to see them, get your own copy.

Marathon madness

It's time once again for the Chicago Marathon, as we noticed last night on coming back from Evanston from having harvested some solid oak doors that were listed as free on Craigslist.  After that, we stopped by on Devon Street to pick up some Pakistani sweets at Tahoora.  We ended up having to go east on Devon to get away from there, and so I'm looking for a road to turn south on so we can get headed back west to home.  The first good spot turned out to be Ridge, and at that point I was like "We might as well take Lake Shore Drive down to the Loop and take the Eisenhower home".  So we got on LSD and headed south into the Loop.  This is a bit less direct than perhaps desirable, but it avoids a whole lot of stoplights, and of course LSD is a very pretty drive, especially in the fall. 

I had forgotten, of course, that this weekend is the Chicago Marathon.  As a result, Columbus Avenue was completely closed down through Grant Park in preparation for the marathon, and all of the crossovers south of Wacker were closed off.  Instead of being able to quickly cross over at Jackson and get onto Congress for an easy transition to the Eisenhower, we ended up having to go all the way down to 18th, turn around, and loop back onto Roosevelt and take the Des Plaines ramp onto the Ryan.

I've been a bit annoyed with the Marathon of late.  Of course, last year they had "unseasonably warm weather" and ended up having to call the race short, which I thought was kinda silly; I don't recall quitting because of adverse conditions being part of the marathoning spirit.  This year, the weather is also predicted to be "unseasonably warm" (is this global warming?).  But of more annoyance value to me is the marathon's new sponsor, Bank of America.  In prior years the marathon has been sponsored by La Salle Bank, which (of course) was purchased recently by BoA.  As most any Chicagoan knows, La Salle had a long tradition of painting murals on a building immediately adjacent to the Kennedy; these murals have generally been of high artistic standards, featuring seasonally relevant Chicago themes.  The mural in October has generally represented the marathon.  I fully expected BoA to discontinue the mural paintings, but what they did instead was even worse: the mural advertising the marathon is ugly and cartoonish, and includes obvious product placement for BoA, something which La Salle had always eschewed.

In general, the BoA advertising for this marathon has been intrusive and, well, ugly.  In addition to the mural they've put snippets of the ugly marathon on streetside banners in various places around town, and on billboards and the like.  It's interesting to compare this to the Accenture Triathlon, which is held earlier in the summer.  The advertising for that is much more understated; then again, that befits Accenture, which is not exactly in the business of selling its wares directly to the public.  (Disclaimer: I have volunteered at the Accenture Triathlon the past two years.)

The other marathon-related thought is that the Baltimore Marathon was just yesterday; one wonder if anyone is running in both, and if so if they have good life insurance.

Friday, October 10, 2008

More Miscellany

More miscellanous tab cleanout.
  • Palin/Fey Trivia Quiz!  I got 60%.
  • Sad Guys on Trading Floors!  (And while we're at it, Garfield Minus Garfield has been good lately too.)
  • I've just been added to HamTwits, a list of hams who use Twitter.  If you fit in this category, contact innismir and ask him to add you too.
  • Google Trends suggests that general internet interest in ham radio has declining year over year since 2004.  The spikes in interest are themselves interesting: there's a big one in 2005 for Katrina, but I've no idea what is responsible for the spikes at the end of 2004 and 2006.
  • In a disturbing turn of events, we recently had an armed robbery in Woodfield, the nation's ninth largest shopping center.
  • Is anyone really surprised that the NSA's listening activities have mainly led to a nice collection of phone sex tapes?
  • For anyone who wants to place bets on the election, FiveThirtyEight is indispensible.  Looks like the odds on an electoral college tie are 1 to 624 at the moment.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Riley Hollingsworth and the FCC Enforcement Bureau

A significant amount of space in September's QST was taken up by content related to Riley Hollingsworth's retirement from the FCC.  The FCC has long paid rather little attention to amateur radio.  It's not that they especially dislike amateur radio; they pay equally little attention to most of the other services as well (as anyone who has used a CB in the past three decades can attest).  The FCC is grossly underfunded, and because the FCC is funded primarily by "user fees" (that is, license fees) it is incented to give extra consideration to the interests of those licensees that pay the most to get their licenses.  That means that broadcast licensees and cellular operators (who pay a lot) tend to figure a lot higher in the FCC food chain than do amateurs, the various licensed-by-rule services, and part 15 users (who pay nothing).  And, of course, we all know who has the better-paid lobbyists.

Riley, while he was there, helped to stem that tide, and during his service it was remotely possible that a ham might actually be able to get the FCC to take notice of a problem being caused by illegal operation and actually deal with it in some way.  He was, for all intents and purposes, a one-man enforcement agency, though, and now that he's gone it's a safe bet that there's not much hope of getting any response from the FCC on things like interference or really anything at all. 

There was also a mention in QST of a Kohl's store whose security system was disabling carfobs in their parking lot.  The QST article focuses, of course, on how nobody could identify what was killing the fobs until some local hams were finally recruited to investigate.  The FCC took no action, of course; the keyfobs are Part 15 devices and are not entitled to protection from interference, even when that interference is from a Part 15 device that is obviously not functioning within the scope of Part 15.  However, I recall a similar case where a similar security system interfered with a cellular site.  In that case, the operator (Macy's) was hit with a citation for unlawful operation and threatened with fines.  Both Kohl's and Macy's did the same thing (own and operate noncompliant Part 15 devices), but Macy's got threatened with fines and Kohl's got basically ignored, simply because the complainers in the Macy's case were "more important" to the FCC than those in the Kohl's case.  That's wrong, and it really illustrates how far off-base the FCC's attitude (and really government in general) has gotten.

Anyway, we were lucky to have you, Riley, and you'll be missed.  Enjoy your retirement.

Solar powered station

My long-term plan for my "station" (which doesn't really exist yet) is to power the 12V equipment (which these days is just about everything) from solar power and batteries instead of line power to the maximum extent possible.  What I'd like is to have a system where the 12V bench power is fed from a battery rack which is itself being charged by solar panels.  In the event that the battery level drops below a certain point, however, I want the system to also bring in a regular line supply to provide backup charging so that the batteries don't go completely flat during an extended period of low sun (which can happen here in the storm season, or in the winter if the panels get covered by snow).  I don't want the batteries to charge from line current just any time the sun isn't out, though; I plan to engineer the battery pack so it has enough reserve to get through the longest of winter nights without needing an emergency boost. 

I've found plenty of power controllers that will keep batteries charged from line power, and controllers that will buffer solar with batteries, but I've yet to find one that can do both at once.  I suppose I'll have to homebrew something.  Probably a good idea anyway.

I'm still trying to work out the state table and transitions, but I'm certainly not up to trying to represent that in HTML in a blog post, so that'll have to wait.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Google Trends, blog spam, and grocery coupons

I've been looking at Google Trends a bit lately.  At the moment, "coupons", "grocery coupons", "", "free coupons", "coupon mom", and "free printable grocery coupons" are all in the top fifteen ten hits.  I'm curious about this; why would this search term spike just now?  There appears to be an active blogspam campaign to push one or more of the online grocery coupon sites, so I'm wondering if the searches are being robogenerated by SEO manipulators to tamper with Google's ranking mechanisms.

It perpetually amazes me how much effort is put into gaming Google and the other search engines.

Project 25 and Ham Radio

The next article in September's QST (which I am now officially behind on, insofar as October's arrived last week) to inspire comment is Mike Kionka's (KI0GO) article on Project 25 and its use in amateur radio.

Project 25, also known as P25, APCO25, or just APCO, is a digital voice "standard" widely used in public service radio.  There are no direct sources for Project 25 radios for amateur use, so a ham wishing to use one will have to reprogram a public service or commercial radio; these radios are expensive to purchase new, and (as Mike points out) often of questionable history when purchased used.  Also, because Project 25 uses DVSI's IMBE codec, there's no option to homebrew a radio, nor is there any way to augment a generally available FM HT or mobile with P25 capability.  Some scanners do contain an IMBE chip, which permits them to receive, but obviously not transmit, Project 25 communications.  As far as I know there is no equivalent to the "DV Dongle" for IMBE.

Playing with Project 25 is likely appealing to those hams who are radio techs in their "day job" and have easy access to the appropriate programming tools and have reason to want to interoperate with other Project 25 systems, or, perhaps, use their "day radio" as a ham radio as well so they don't have to carry two radios.  It seems to me that using P25 on ham bands creates a walled garden, tying up valuable bandwidth with communications that most people won't be able to receive successfully unless they can get their hands on one of these expensive radios.  I certainly understand the desire to play with any technology you can get your hands on, but really this isn't all that useful to amateur radio in the long term and so I really don't want to see this sort of thing spread. 

As mentioned above, Project 25 uses the IMBE codec, which means it's based on a closed standard locked up tight behind restrictive patent licensing that deeply limit interoperability and experimentation.  The fact that the standard is closed dramatically impairs innovation, as this discussion on the gnuradio list amply evidences.  In this particular case the fact that IMBE is a closed, secret standard effectively prevents someone from developing a new technology that would both advance radio communication technology and benefit emergency communications, both specific aims of the amateur radio service (although I don't think the individual in question is actually a ham).  It's unfortunate that the public service people have made the mistake of adopting a closed standard (gee, I wonder how that happened?), but that's no reason why the amateur radio service should repeat that mistake. 

Because the use of closed standards like Project 25 is antithetical to the goals of the amateur radio service, I would strongly oppose the coordination of any Project 25 (or D*STAR, for that matter) repeaters simply because the voice protocol used is nonopen.  Frankly, I think the use of a nonopen codec violates at least the spirit, if not the letter, of FCC regulations.  We're not allowed to transmit data using an unspecified encoding except under very specific conditions; the only reason Project 25 and D*STAR are legal on the amateur bands is the FCC regulation in question doesn't apply to voice modes, and the FCC's outdated mentality about voice and data preserves a distinction between the two that died years ago with convergence.  This problem is seen in all aspects of the FCC's regulatory milieux, not just in the regulation of amateur radio.  Neither the FCC nor Congress have come to grips with the simple fact that voice is data.

At the most, coordinators should set aside a small section of uncoordinated bandwidth for digital repeaters to use, similar to the way many set aside a frequency pair or two for uncoordinated temporary repeaters, and tell them to sort out their difficulties on their own.  We need to encourage the development of open digital voice standards, not make excuses for perpetuating existing closed ones just because they already exist.