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.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008


I'm cleaning up my Firefox tabs; here's a selection of things I've found interesting in the past few days.
I'm going to close this entry (which is being composed while I listen to the Presidential debate) with a poem.  Please read it; it is surprisingly relevant.

Weird radios suck

My 15A supply came in yesterday, as did the replacement microphone for my ADI AR-146 two-meter radio.  This should have allowed me to "road-test" this radio, which I was planning to use for my APRS station.  I ran into a hitch, though.  This radio has a firmware option to operate in a "channelized" mode, in which it can only be tuned to a limited number of predefined channels, which cannot be changed by the operator.  There is a procedure to switch it out of that mode (documented in the manual, which I managed to find online), but that procedure requires the OEM microphone.  My radio is stuck in this mode, and since I don't have the OEM microphone I cannot switch it out of that mode.  So unless I can find either the OEM microphone for an AR-146, AR-147, AR-446, or AR-447, or enough technical information to find out what pressing the "CALL" button on the microphone (in conjunction with the PTT key) does, I won't be able to delobotomize this radio, and thus will probably not be able to use it as an APRS radio.

So I'm going to start going to local group meetings in the hopes of finding someone who can help me recover this radio, while saving up toward buying a new one in the event that I can't rescue this one.  That'll delay the project about two months.  The main question now is whether I want to buy the antenna and put it up now, or wait until spring.  It'll be winter before I can afford to buy both an antenna and a new radio, and there is not much chance that I'm going to climb up onto my roof to install an antenna in the middle of winter.

Anyway, if you happen to be reading this and you have a two-meter FM radio that you're not using, or you have one of the aforementioned microphones, and are willing to sell or loan it to me, please contact me.