Thursday, September 25, 2008

Why the McCain "insurance" plan is a bad idea

Here's the problem with an insurance approach to the present banking crisis.  The notion here is that the government will insure mortgage products, charging a premium for doing so.  The thing is, these banks are holding mortgages that they are ready to default on.  If you offer them insurance on those mortgages, and the premium is less than their expected loss in foreclosure, they will take the insurance and foreclose as soon as the terms of the insurance allows them, divesting themselves of the unwanted mortgage and walking away with the profit.  The feds end up holding the bag for the loss, and the homeowner ends up evicted.  If, on the other hand, the premium is priced so as to make the cost greater than the loss, the banks will simply not participate, and the bailout does no good.  Either way, it's a blindingly stupid idea.  The reason McCain and other Republicans are backing this is that it is a convenient vehicle for corporate welfare (which it quite clearly is), and because it avoids the bugaboo of government ownership of banks, which has been a taboo in American politics since the middle of the 19th century.

There is simply no way that the McCain proposal can end up revenue-neutral for the government.  The administration proposal and the Democratic proposal, as I understand them, are both similar enough to the Stockholm Plan that there's at least a chance of revenue neutrality, even profit in the long term.  McCain's idea is simply utterly daft.

I can't believe we're letting this clearly barmy old geezer disrupt what were obviously productive negotiations.  Thanks to his self-centered meddling, which is clearly intended as some sort of long-shot gamble to save his increasingly bizarre candidacy, instead of having a plan that had a good chance of passing both houses of Congress and getting a Presidential signature, we have nothing.  I don't want to think about how far the market will drop tomorrow now.

Repeater lists, and collaboration in the amateur radio community

Many of you reading this blog will be familiar with Tom White's (K5EHX) repeater database.  This tool seeks to make repeater listings more useful using mapping technologies such as those provided by Google.  Combined with splat, Tom's database is a really useful tool for locating repeaters.

For the past several weeks, I've been working with Tom to clean up the data in his database, eliminating duplicates and fixing obviously invalid entries, assisted by dumps he provides me daily and some scripts I've written to scour the data for suspicious entries.  It's slow going as there are over 14,000 entries, and it takes time to examine and validate the entries.

At one point, I wrote a bot to create pages on my ham radio wiki for each repeater in the database.  I have neglected this part of the project, and so those pages are sitting there largely untouched; I really should just delete them as that script no longer works due to changes I've made in my underlying database anyway.  There are only so many hours in the day, though, and I just haven't gotten back around to it.  So those pages languish, growing increasingly out of date every day.  I should delete them, but to do that I have to figure out how to delete them; there's 14,000 of them (give or take) so deleting them one at a time with the web interface would be quite tedious.  There's probably a bulk tool I can use, but I don't know what it is just yet.

The other day, the holder of a particular call sign which appears in those pages due to a particular problem with the dataset (one which Tom and I have been working to correct) discovered this.  He contacted not me (even though I provide contact information on the wiki), but instead the holder of the other call sign that appeared on the page for that particular listing.  That person then contacted Tom, who contacted me.  I'm not really bothered by the contact, and nobody in the exchange seemed too terribly upset, just someone who seemed a bit startled to find his call sign associated with a repeater he doesn't operate.  There was one thing in the exchange that caught my eye, though, and which inspired me to write this post.

One of the people involved made the comment "I guess you place a lot of faith in the Internet community to voluntarily update."  And, yes, we do.  It would be nice if we didn't, but it's all we can do right now.  This in itself is sad, because there are very good databases out there listing virtally every repeater operational in the United States.  If we had access to those databases, Tom's site would be much better.  The problem is that the holders of those databases, in general, refuse to share.  These people are, of course, the various frequency coordination bodies throughout the United States.

The coordinators necessarily have to have records of, at least, every repeater for which they have provided coordination, because without such records they cannot hope to coordinate new repeaters in their territory.  They probably also have access to the same records in adjoining territories, since RF signals are notorious for not stopping at state (or national) boundaries.  However, I have yet to see a coordination group that makes its database available to the public or even to all hams.  Some, for example SERA, sell their list, or at least excerpts from it.  Texas offers a search but warns that "data obtained by this search function may not be republished without permission".  I have yet to find a repeater coordinator that does not take an extremely proprietary attitude toward the data it has amassed in the course of coordinating repeaters.  Frankly, I find this attitude incomprehensible. 

So, yes, we rely on the Internet for updates.  In general, repeater operators are unwilling to provide us with updated information because they've already provided it to the coordinator; why should they have to provide it to us as well?  The coordinators won't share, so our only hope is to either go out and gather the information ourselves, or ask people to send it to us.

So what can be done about this?  If you are the operator or trustee of a repeater, beacon, or IRLP- or Echolink-linked simplex station, please go add it to K5EHX's list (or update it if it's already there).  Please provide all the information you can, including the exact location, altitude, power, etc.  If you are a a member of a repeater coordination council, please consider publishing your coordination data, or publishing it in more detail than you do presently.  If you're not a repeater coordinator, consider becoming a member of your local repeater coordination council, so that you can influence them to be more open with their data.

Or, consider forming an alternative coordination council.  There's nothing in the FCC regulations (that I can find) that specially privilege the existing coordination councils.  Anybody with the information and technical know-how can act as a frequency coordinator.  The FCC defines a frequency coordinator as "an entity, recognized in a local or regional area by amateur operators whose stations are eligible to be auxiliary or repeater stations, that recommends transmit/receive channels and associated operating and technical parameters for such stations in order to avoid or minimize potential interference."  If there's any formal mechanism for such recognition, I don't see it.  As far as I can tell, if you can get a group of hams in a local area to recognize you as someone who can coordinate frequencies, that makes you a frequency coordinator. 

It's not like the tools are hard to get.  They used to be; accurate terrain maps used to be hard to find, and the software to do RF modeling expensive.  But neither of those is the case now.  Highly accurate DEMs for most all of North America are available for free download from the United States government, and reasonably good RF propogation modeling can be done using splat, a free tool.  The only other piece of information required to do coordination is a list of already-existing coordinated stations: the one piece of data that the coordinators refuse to release.

But I'm not really interested in dethroning the current coordinators; the work they do is important and necessary, although I think they could do a better job of it in some ways (for example, I think they should refuse to coordinate closed repeaters or other stations that are not operated in some way for the benefit of all hams or the public generally, and something needs to be done about the problem of "paper repeaters").  I just want them to be more open with their data, so that hams everywhere will be able to more readily find what repeaters are actually in their area (or in some area they are going to visit).  Just the benefit to emergency communications of having more accurate comprehensive lists would be substantial.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


So we learned today that John McCain cannot multitask, or at least doesn't want to. That's the only conclusion I can draw from his refusal to participate in a debate while this bank bailout thing is pending. Simply put, the President doesn't have the option to call "time out" from the Oval Office, and for McCain to be trying to do this during a campaign tells me that he's not competent to be President. As Obama himself said, "It is ... part of the president's job to deal with more than one thing at once." (CNN)

Neither McCain's nor Obama's presence is needed to advance the negotiations on the bailout bill. The important parties in this negotiation are already in the room. All Obama and McCain need to do is vote on the bill -- and really their votes won't be needed anyway, since they'll just cancel each other out if they're on opposite sides, and if they're on the same side odds are the bill will pass easily anyway. McCain's call to "suspend the campaign until the bailout is adopted" is a lame form of brinksmanship on his part that more likely conceals that he's tired and running out of money and simply not ready for the debate. He's been spending the whole week lowering expectations as it is.

I understand that McCain is down 10 points on Intrade in the past few hours. Small wonder, that.

In other news, Fox News is spreading the rumor that Biden will drop out after his debate with Palin. Yeah, right.

And, just in case you've forgotten: button, button.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Longer-term to do lists

So I've got a medium-term project now (mentioned in my previous post). This isn't the only thing I have in mind to do, of course. Here's a few others.

1. Set up a WSPR listener/beacon. Not sure what band(s); there's already a WSPR beacon in Chicagoland on 30m, so that doesn't add much to the mix, but there are other bands to consider. Six meters is especially tempting.

2. Both the APRS station and the WSPR beacon will require 12 volt (ok, 13.8 volt) power to run at least the rigs. This is an ideal voltage to do solar for, so setting up a PV array with battery backup so I can take these stations off the grid will be a priority. (Plus, if I put in an array of 1 kW or more, Illinois will pay 30% of the cost.)

3. Find a way to run the computer side of the APRS and WSPR stations on the PV array so I can take them off the grid too. This will require some research as most Intel-based motherboards need more than just +12V and getting the other voltages efficiently is somewhat difficult.

I'm sure more will come to me over time. And of course this doesn't include all the ongoing home improvement projects.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

APRS station: shopping list

So the more I think about it the more I'm thinking that an APRS station is going to be this winter's project.

Initially I'm just going to listen. The next step is going to be transmitting WX info from our Oregon Scientific PWS. My location won't allow me a very high antenna, but we're a mile and a half from the Tri-State (at closest approach) and so we ought to be able to hear at least some data from mobiles.

APRS is a variation on AX.25 packet, and historically APRS stations have used modified TNCs to do their work. However, I'm not really interested in buying a TNC, and thankfully I really don't need to. It's perfectly feasible, from what I'm reading, to use a computer for this role, using the computer's soundcard to process the signal from the radio, and software to demodulate the "modem noise" into digital signals. Computers are more expensive than TNCs, but I have several spare computers and no spare TNCs, so computer is the direction we'll be going. "Soundmodem" software already exists for Linux, so that's an easy step.

I already have a radio, an ADI-146 that I picked up cheap off eBay a while back. This is a 50 watt 2m mobile rig, and was sold to me without a microphone. No big deal, don't need a microphone for this anyway as the rig controller will replace the microphone anyway. As a mobile rig, the transmitter has no internal power supply, so I'll also need a 12V (or 13.8V) supply. To round things out, I'll also need an antenna and feedline to connect the antenna to the radio. For good measure, it would probably be a good idea to get a VHF SWR meter before transmitting with this rig at 50W; don't want to blow out the finals, after all. Also, most commercial 2m antennas are tuned to peak around 146 MHz; APRS uses 144.390, which is pretty far downband from the 146 center point, and with most commercial antennas likely to require retuning to get a good match. For that I will need either an analyzer or a SWR meter.

So, this means I need to buy the following:
  • Antenna (I'm thinking something like the Diamond F22A, priced at $89.95)
  • Feedline (about 60 feet required with prices that range between 30 cents and $1.20 a foot, plus connectors and short cables, for a total of between $50 and $125)
  • Rig controller (the Rigblaster Plus at $149.95 should suffice)
  • Power supply (probably somewhere around $100)
  • KVM switch (around $30)
  • SWR meter (MFJ has a cheap one for $15.95)
That puts the total budget in the range of $440 to $515, with probably another $25 for incidentals.  Maybe I can find some cheaper alternatives or get some stuff used or something; I'm not sure I'm ready to spend that much right now.

Saturday, September 20, 2008


The next topic from this month's QST deals with one of my pet peeves in amateur radio today: D*STAR. D*STAR (Digital Smart Technologies for Amateur Radio) is a digital voice "standard" being developed mainly by Icom, in conjunction with the Japanese Amateur Radio League, with funding from the Japanese government. My reason for disliking D*STAR is that D*STAR presently uses the proprietary AMBE encoding, which is locked up tight under restrictive patents held by DVSI. The lack of openness of the AMBE encoding means that there can be no homebrew solutions that interoperate with Icom's commercial products. Most of the rest of the D*STAR standard is open, although I've seen comments that suggest that the 10 GHz data protocol is also proprietary.

The nice thing about D*CHAT and D-RATS is that both of them operate in the data portion of the D*STAR standard, and therefore don't involve the patent issues that D*STAR voice runs into. D*CHAT is a basic SMS application for use with D*STAR that has been around for a while now; D-RATS is an expansion on D*CHAT that provides file transfer capabilities, GPS integration, and some simple form processing (which would appear to be really useful in a disaster management context). I'd be interested in knowing if there's an implementation that can be used with any radio, in conjunction with a software implementation of D*STAR. Since neither D*CHAT nor D-RATS use voice, they don't need the AMBE support, and the rest of the standard can theoretically be implemented in software and run out into any1 radio using a RigBlaster or similar technology. In my opinion, this would be a good thing, as it would help to break Icom's lock on the D*STAR standard; a non-Icom implementation of D*STAR (less AMBE) combined with an alternative voice codec, would go a long way to giving amateurs a real option for digital voice that preserves the right to experiment and to innovate.

1As Greg points out in the comments, by "any" I mean "any SSB radio with a wide enough passband". Admittedly, that rules out most of the VHF and UHF radios on the market, since the vast majority of VHF and up radios for hams are FM only.


The next topic derived from reactions to the September 2008 issue of QST is APRS. APRS, or Automatic Position Reporting System, is a curious little beast. APRS is, best I can figure, a subset of traditional amateur packet radio, specifically designed for exchanging small bits of information of a local nature. It looks to me to pretty much analogous to broadcast UDP, to put it in terms someone more at home with TCP/IP might understand better.

APRS's most common usage (and the source of its name) is beaconing location information, in conjunction with a GPS receiver. Quite a few hams routinely have an APRS beacon in their cars, constantly announcing their location. I live within a mile of the Tri-State Tollway (I-294), and I routinely pick up APRS bursts on 144.390 with my HT. Unfortunately, my VX-5R isn't APRS-aware, so all it sounds like is modem noise, which I was never very good at interpreting anyway.

Some of Bob's comments in the QST article suggest to me that the repeater coverage work I'm doing (along with K5EHX) could be useful here; it sounds like it wouldn't be too hard to use APRS to do a "what is near me" query against the coverage database and send back a reply. Also, I have a personal weather station, and so putting weather info out onto APRS for the benefit of those traveling through the area seems like a useful thing and shouldn't be too hard to do. So this is on my shortlist of things to do in the not-to-distant future. Since I already have a two-meter mobile that I'm not using (needs a microphone), it would be easy enough to use a RigBlaster or similar device in conjunction with one of my many spare computers and a 2m omni on the roof to get an APRS station up and running.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The FLEX-5000

I recently joined the ARRL, in response to their announcement that members would have access to their archive of QST all the way back to 1915. That was what it took to push me over. A few days later, I get a nice fat envelope from them that contained a welcome letter (which I nearly threw out without first detaching the membership card that was Intel-boogered to it), a solicitation to join the Diamond Club (seems mighty expensive for what little it gets me), and the most recent issue of QST.

So I've been browsing this issue, while recovering from the flu. I'm feeling well enough now to form coherent sentences, so I'm going to blog some reactions. First one is to an ad (QST appears to be about two-third ads), for the FLEX-5000 SDR being sold by FlexRadio Systems. I'm very interested in software defined radio, but frankly the $2799 pricetag for the FLEX-5000A is out of my league. And the $5299 tag for the FLEX-5000C seems way overpriced, given that it appears to just be the 5000A with an imbedded Wintel system (and a speaker), which I can't really see being worth $2500. It's my general impression that high-end ham gear is markedly overpriced, probably because the people who can afford to buy this stuff for a hobby are generally just drowning in spare cash and don't really care about the difference between $2000 and $4000 (or even $10,000). So while I'm interested in SDR, I'm not this interested. Even the USRP2 (at $1400) is less of an investment, although the USRP needs a lot of additional gear to make it into a full-fledged HF radio (mainly amplifiers, as the USRP RF daughterboards have relatively low power outputs).

Friday, September 05, 2008

"Jesus was a community organizer"

So today's meme, in response to Sarah Palin's nasty attack on Barack Obama and his background as a community organizer, is to point out that Jesus was a community organizer and Pontius Pilate was a governor. Of course, this isn't exactly right (if you take Christian doctrine as granted, Jesus was something more than just a community organizer), but it certainly resonates with a lot of people.

The idea that community service is laughable is deeply offensive to a lot of people, and should be especially offensive to Christians in light of, oh, say, Matthew 25:34-36. The Bible is full of instances of imposing the duty to care for one's fellow man, and community organizing is a prime example of doing that. The Catholic Church, in particular, has a long tradition of community service. It very difficult indeed to read Palin's (and Guiliani's) comments as anything other than demeaning of all those who have ever volunteered for anything anywhere.

I'm sure I'm not the only one to do it, but I've put a slightly abridged version of this quote on a t-shirt/button/magnet etc at Knock yourselves out!