Thursday, January 29, 2009

Blagojevich is gone!

I've just watched the Illinois State Senate unanimously sustain the articles of impeachment and remove Governor Blagojevich.  They haven't officially closed it because one senator's button didn't work right but they'll sort it out.

As a reminder, I still have Impeach Blagojevich merchandise up for sale.

Good riddance, Mr. Blagojevich.  And to soon-to-be Governor Quinn, good luck.  You'll need it cleaning up this mess.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Right to Silent Photography

So, Rep. Peter King (Republican, of New York) has introduced H.R. 414, a bill which would require mobile phones to make a sound when their digital camera feature is used.  This is supposedly to make it harder for "predators" to take indecent photographs of children and others in dressing rooms or in public, by providing an "alert" that their picture is being taken.

What this bill (the "Camera Phone Predator Alert Act", called this because it requires phones to alert the predator that they've been photographed) will actually do is allow predators, including predators in the guise of police, know when someone has used a cell phone camera to document their illegal or abusive activities.  And it won't protect against the sort of predators Mr. King is claiming it will protect against, anyway; many of them use homebrew devices that don't emit any sound (and since they're not mobile phones won't be covered by this act anyway), or will just collect and use older cellphones.  Predators aren't creatures of opportunity, after all.  They're predators; they plan their crimes and prepare for them very carefully.  All this does is force them to buy slightly different supplies.

It's well-documented that cell phone cameras provide invaluable evidence in crimes, including crimes committed by police.  Does Mr. King really expect us to believe that his motivation is to protect the children?  Or is it really to protect the police?

This bill will harm more than it will help.  Please do write your Congressional representatives and ask them to oppose this bill.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

ARRL: Still Relevant?

Dan KB6NU, earlier this month, commented on the ARRL's lackluster ability to attract new members.  Dan doesn't speculate on why the ARRL didn't even keep up with population growth and has a smaller percentage of all US hams than it did a year ago. 

I'm one of the relatively small number of hams first licensed in the past year who did join the ARRL.  I did so for a specific reason: I was tempted to join by the addition of electronic access to the QST archives as a member benefit.  Although this was fun at first, I haven't used it in a while, nor have I read the new issues of QST that come to me in the mail for a while now; they come in and landed in some stack or another and promptly disappeared.  The way things are going, I'm not really sure if I'll renew when the time comes later this year; I'm not convinced I'm getting anything out of it.

Frankly, I think it's because the ARRL is out of touch with the people who are becoming hams today.  The era of the communicator is ending, but there's still a lot of communicators in the old fogies that largely make up ARRL's leadership.  If the ARRL wants to remain relevant with today's hams, it needs to understand what their interests are today (and not merely those of hams who happen to be over 60), how they differ from what hams' interests were 30 years ago, and change their strategies to be more responsive.  Unfortunately, I don't see this happening, at least not yet. 

My renewal isn't up for several more months.  I shall have to keep a close eye on this between now and then.

Using Ham Radio For Political Purposes

The conservative blogosphere is all agog over Obama's advice to Republicans to "stop listening to Rush Limbaugh".  One particular commentary I ran across (on the "Hot Air" website, apparently a conservative political site I've never heard of before) was the suggestion to use ham radio to "keep in touch" and "coordinate resistance activities".  While such use of ham radio is not explicitly forbidden, at least in the United States, and there is certainly is a lot of political talk on at least some ham radio bands, there's at least a historical understanding that the use of amateur radio frequencies for overtly political activity is not consistent with the purpose of the amateur radio service.  (Anybody here remember the Student Information Net?)

More practically, our dear conservative friend should be reminded that there are also liberals in the ranks of amateur radio operators, and we will be able to hear you and react accordingly.  Remember, encryption is illegal in the amateur service.

For that matter, your permission to use the amateur radio service is granted to you by the government, which is (as you have been complaining about almost continuously since January 20th) is now under the direction of President Obama.  If you think Obama is going to shut up Rush Limbaugh, or other conservatives, by force, it's not really that much more of a reach for you to conclude that he'll also revoke your ham radio license.

I, for one, would like for the amateur service to be free of political considerations that don't directly relate to the amateur radio service. I know that my politics differ from those of many of my fellows in the ham radio hobby, but I would like to think that we can set aside our political differences in favor of our shared passion for radio, at least whenever we're in the shack and in the club meeting hall.  There's plenty of other places you can talk politics.

Callsign prefix to country mapping

A while back I wrote an article about automated recognition of nominally valid callsigns using a relatively simple regular expression (which I didn't happen to mention in the article).  I've since expanded on this.

Using the ITU's Table of Allocation of International Call Sign Series, I've built a simple table that maps the first two characters of a putative callsign into the country with authority over that callsign. You should first verify that the putative callsign is valid by verifying that it matches one of these two regular expressions: ^[BFGIKMNTW][0-9][A-Z0-9]{0,3}[A-Z]$ or ^[A-Z0-9][A-Z0-9][0-9][A-Z0-9]{0,3}[A-Z]$.

Click here to download this table, in tab-delimited format. There are no column headers. The second column is the ISO 3166 2-letter code for the country. I've arbitrarily used codes X1 for the ICAO and X2 for the World Meterological Organization, since these entities have no ISO codes (not that either of them issues amateur radio licenses, as far as I know).  This table is explicitly designed to be used as a lookup against the first two characters of a string.

As an aside, I'd have preferred to use the ISO three-letter codes, but ISO doesn't make those freely available. A source that does seem to have three-letter (as well as ISO 3166 numeric codes) is, but of course I have no idea of the validity or recentness of this source. Use at your own risk.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Proposed Virginia Hands-Free law may apply to ham radio operators

Mike KF4UEL reports that the proposed hands-free law in Virginia would prohibit the use of a ham radio in a car unless the radio is equipped with a hands-free accessory.  Unlike many other such laws, this law contains no provision excluding ham radios, and is written broadly enough that it would cover them, as well as covering most other land mobile services such as CB and business land mobile.  The California law, for example, is specific to "wireless telephones", and the Chicago ordinance is restricted to devices that are connected to the public telephone network.

I've seen some discussion that suggests that it's the full-duplex nature of the telephone call that makes it so dangerous, and that the half-duplex operating mode of ham radios, CB, and business land mobile is not nearly as distracting.  Commercial drivers (not to mention law enforcement and emergency response personnel) have been using land mobile radio for a long time now without anybody expressing serious concerns. 

Hopefully we'll be able to convince Virginia that mobile hams aren't a threat to public safety.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Radio cybersport (or is that cyber radiosport?)

Most anyone who follows ham radio has at least heard of radiosport, also known as contesting.  For those of you who aren't familiar with contesting, the basic idea is for the competing operator to make contact with as many other stations as possible during a specific time interval.  Each contest has its own distinctive set of rules and conditions, and I'm not going to go into much detail on that here; if you are interested in doing this sort of thing there's lots of resources on it on the Internet and elsewhere.

The thing is, contest contacts are pretty much entirely devoid of content; typically the only information exchanged is callsign, location, signal strength, and (in some contests) a sequence number or validation code.  The exchanges are so formulaic and predictable that many hams actually use autokeyers or macro tools (for digital modes) or audio recorders (for voice modes) to send them instead of manually keying or saying them for each exchange.  It is a pretty short step from this to realizing that it would be possible to program a computer to do the bulk of the work of a contest exchange, especially in most digital modes.  It represents no real innovation to combine existing tools with some simple scripting that would automate everything except for the decision of what frequency to use, when to send CQ, and when to respond to CQ, and reducing the role of the control operator in contesting to little more than a "whack-a-mole" player, clicking at spots when they appear on the waterfall.  I've heard rumors that there are already hams who have done this.  This would be harder to do in voice modes because of the difficulty of doing voice recognition, especially in single-sideband with lots of noise and interfering signals.  It would also be harder in CW because so many hams have such idiosyncratic "fists" that automated Morse code readers are going to have trouble reading them.

But let's take this one step farther.  Instead of making it a game of "whack-a-mole", with the control operator watching for spots on the waterfall and firing off an automated QSO sequence when they spot a promising one, let's instead make the contest one of writing a computer program that controls the entire process: selecting operating frequencies and modes (within the limits of the contest), choosing when to call CQ, choosing what incoming calls to respond to, and making the QSOs.  The program that scores the most points during the contest window wins.  The only role of the control operator in the contest is to monitor the program, and, should it malfunction, hit the "kill" switch, and perhaps tweak the program.  The operator is not permitted to do anything to the program while it is running other than to kill it.

This is, fundamentally, a technology and programming contest, not an operating contest.  It could be argued that this doesn't serve the primary purpose of contests, which is to maintain "the existing reservoir" of "trained operators" in the amateur radio service.  However, it does serve the purpose of advancing the radio art.  The control programs that would be developed in order to win a contest could also be readily adapted for passage of actual messages.  There are also opportunities to advance signal processing techniques.  I would expect that software-defined radios with whole-band receive capabilities would be quite useful in such a contest, as well as defined-on-the-fly filters (to notch out automatically-identified interference, for example). 

I think a contest like this could attract a lot of computer technologists to amateur radio.  It's a wonderful hacking opportunity. 

Just a thought.  And one that isn't entirely mine, so don't blame me if it's totally stupid.

Digital modes

I mentioned yesterday the necessity for hams to be conservative of spectrum by using efficient modulations for their communications.  There are a panoply of digital modes these days, with more being invented, and obviously these different modes have different characteristics in terms of spectral efficiency, performance, coding gain, and so forth.   W1HKJ (the author of the popular fldigi digital modem program) has a nice site that provides both waterfall images and sound samples of what various digital modes look and sound like, as well as brief descriptions of how each mode is produced and a very nice set of comparisons of the modes by various metrics.  Good reference for those trying to learn more about digital modes.

Thanks to Mark K6HX for the link.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Future of Amateur Radio

Reading a bit about the past of amateur radio has got me thinking about where amateur radio is going to be going in the future.  The challenge that I see is going to be keeping the aging body of the amateur community from miring us in the past and keeping us from making the innovation necessary to maintaining the appearance that amateur radio is relevant enough to justify our spectral grants.

Hams are going to face increasing demands for their spectrum, as the demand for more and faster wireless connectivity places increasing demands on the limited amount of usable spectrum available.  The commercial services are all looking at ways to squeeze more signal into limited spectrum, mainly by heavy use of digital modes that provide far more spectral efficiency than the old-fashioned analog modes that dominate voice communication in the amateur service today.  If hams want to retain their spectrum grants, they're going to have to prove that they're not wasting their spectrum on spectrally inefficient modes like double-sideband AM (which, I hear, is making a comeback in 75 meters).  Largely, this means wider use of digital voice modes, and not just in UHF (which is where most of the digital voice is today).  We've practically been ordered to do so (eight years ago) by Dale Hatfield, the Chief of the FCC's Office on Engineering and Technology.

At the same time, I don't want to see amateur radio embrace closed technologies like the AMBE codec used in D*STAR.  We need to be more spectrally efficient, but with open standards so that our ability to improve further is not curtailed by having to navigate around restrictive patents.  It is therefore essential that we develop freely available codecs that are at least as spectrally efficient as AMBE.

Reinvigorating packet radio, or something related to it, to create a real digital message network (akin to the "Global Backbone Project" I've written about elsewhere) would also be a good idea.  And not just as a gateway to the Internet, either; we need to build and maintain a network that can stand alone if it has to.  Building a multilayered network like this would go a long way to filling our spectrum with justifiable activity, too.

But I think the main thing is as Jeff KE9V writes: we have to look forward.  Ham radio has and must be primarily about innovation.  Once a technology is mature, it's no longer properly in the ambit of ham radio.  We can use mature technologies to accomplish our other goals, but we must never become complacent, satisfied that the solutions we have today are "good enough" for our purposes.  There's a reason the public generally thinks of ham radio as "obsolete"; while to some degree that's due to a lack of public education, it's also because so many hams are still stuck in 1965.  It's not 1965 anymore.  Practically everyone has a cell phone today, and enjoys more communication freedom than even the most qualified, capable, and equipped ham did in 1965.  Your hot and fancy Icom IC-7800 doesn't make you any more innovative if all you're using it for is analog SSB voice on 75 meters.

Fundamentally, we need to move away from the "Communicator" model of the ham, a model which dominated the hobby through the 50s and 60s; other services now provide much easier access to the same capabilities without forcing the communicator to learn about things they really don't care about.  Trying to recruit new hams by stressing the communication opportunities in ham radio just makes us look old-fashioned, and probably chases off as many as it brings, especially with younger people.  For those of you who are communicators, enjoy it while it lasts; there will be plenty of communicators to talk to for some time yet.

The area where we need to recruit more is with computer technologists.  It's plainly obvious that software-defined radio is going to be a huge aspect of the radio art for some time yet, and it's important that we recruit people who can do this.  The radio art is already too large for one person to understand all of it, and as computer technology (also something too large for one person to understand all of it) becomes ever-more enmeshed with radio, we're going to need to collaborate more and more to continue to advance the art.

The No-Broadcasting Rule in Ham Radio

An odd fellow I ran into on Twitter has been digging into the history of the prohibition on broadcasting in the amateur radio service. He recently asked me (for no reason that I can fully understand) whether there is much debate on the merits of this rule today. According to at least one site, hams were originally allowed to broadcast, way back in the early early days, but that privilege was taken away from them in the 1920s when commercial broadcasting came onto the scene.

I've talked to a few hams who think that the rules for microbroadcasting are overly restrictive (and I am inclined to agree with them), but these are people who happen to be both hams and potential microbroadcasters. The thing is, today, the technology of broadcasting is pretty much solved, something that wasn't true in 1912. Sure, there are new modulations being developed (digital is all the craze today), but those modulations can be developed, whether commercially or by hams, without being used initially for broadcasting to the general public; the exact same techniques one uses to put a signal on the air to transmit a directed two-way communication can then be turned around (once mature) and used to broadcast one-way communications to the general public. And once a technology is mature, it is no longer very much the scope of the amateur radio service. Ham radio is supposed to be on the cutting edge of technology, not running in the middle of the pack. Any cutting-edge radio technology is not going to reach the general public because the general public won't have receivers capable of picking up the signal anyway.

Fundamentally, broadcasting isn't about radio; what matters to the broadcaster is putting the content they create (or assemble) in front of a consuming public. Radio is just one of the mechanisms that can be used for this. Ham radio isn't about content. Most of the communications we send in ham radio are unimaginative, prosaic, even formulaic. About the only time the content matters is when we're sending emergency traffic. Ham radio is about the mechanism.

Hams do have a limited right to broadcast. We run beacons to explore propogation. Right now there's a growing community of hams experimenting with WSPR beacons to see how far even quite weak signals can be sent and still be recovered with content intact. This is, technically, a form of broadcasting, but it's permitted because it is being done to advance the science and technology of radio communication. Nothing about a guy sitting in front of a microphone jabbering on about politics to anyone who would care to listen, or playing prerecorded music for anyone who cares to hear, advances the science and technology of radio communication. No offense to anyone who wants to be a broadcaster; I'm sure it's a ton of fun and all that, but it's simply not what ham radio is about.

Now, maybe my sense of what ham radio is about is colored by the fact that hams (in the US, at least) have been forbidden from broadcasting for nearly 90 years. It's virtually a certainty that the hobby would be different if we still counted amateur broadcasters amongst our ranks. I'm almost certain that it would be for the worse, however. I'm all for broader privileges for microbroadcasters, but I don't think we would benefit by sacrificing the amateur radio service for their benefit; the two serve totally different purposes, and keeping them segregated is almost certainly for the best.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Inauguration Special Event Stations

To the best of my knowledge, there are three special event stations designated in celebration of the inauguration of Barack Obama.

K4I is being operated by the Arlington Radio Public Service Club.  They are providing talk-in services for amateurs traveling to the Washington, DC area for the inauguration.  For more details, see their website.

W3I is being operated by Howard S Gorden, although he may be acting on behalf of another organization, possibly the Potomac Valley Radio Club, although I can find no mention of it on their site.  I haven't been able to find out anything else about this event station, so I don't know what the plans for this station are.

W3A is being operated by the District of Columbia Amateur Radio Society; they are operating it as a DX station, mostly in 20, 40, and 80 meters.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

How to recognize a call sign

In the course of my work of validating K5EHX's repeater database, and more generally in building a union repeater database for my repeater footprint project, I've been wanting a way to validate whether a given string is a valid call sign.  It was relatively easy to figure out what a valid US call sign is; the FCC has pretty well-defined standards and it's easy enough to write a regexp that matches all valid US ham call signs, especially if you're willing to ignore the X series that's reserved for experimental stations and don't care to differentiate the outlying areas from the lower 48.  Expanding this to the rest of the world, though, is a bit harder.  I had been using the cty.dat file from the Contest Country File collection, but that database is overly complex for what I want to do as it breaks out down to the island level and has all sorts of additional complexity that I'm sure is useful to contesters, but not so much to me.

Last night, however, I finally came across the ITU specifications for a call sign; the specification is set forth in Section 30 and is actually pretty simple: either one of the letters B, F, G, I, K, M, N, R, or W, or any two characters, followed by a digit and one to four additional characters, the last of which must be a letter.  What could be simpler?

The one thing this doesn't offer is any way to tell what country or authority a given callsign is from.  Well, the ITU has that information too, in Appendix 42, the Table of Allocation of International Call Sign Series.  This table is slightly nonintuitive, because it shows three-letter codes; for ham purposes only the first two are used, or the first only if the first character is one of the nine above plus the digit 2.  An enterprising individual should be able to figure out how to determine the nationality of a callsign using only this table relatively easily.

I'll be adding this to my validation routines for database imports for the footprint project soon; I'm in the process right now of modifying the validator for the K5EHX import to be more reusable so I can (eventually) import data from other sources as well, and once I finish that I'll start adding more validation checks. 

Friday, January 16, 2009

Accidental cannibal pwns radio contest

A UK radio station had a call-in challenge to listeners asking them to call in with the most unusual thing they'd ever eaten.  He wasn't expecting the call from a woman who had lived as a child with her parents in Africa and been sold, unwittingly, ground human flesh from a seriously unscrupulous butcher.

It's times like this that remind us that humanity is stranger and more terrifying than we could possibly care to imagine.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Ricardo Montalban and old movies

Ricardo Montalban, best known for his portrayals of Mr. Roarke of Fantasy Island and Khan Noonien Singh in Star Trek, passed away today at the tender age of 88.  Amusingly enough, we recently watched one of his lesser-known movies, Mystery Street, which was recently on Turner Classic Movies.  It was certainly odd to hear someone with a Latino accent playing a Cape Cod police detective in the 1950s.  It was actually a reasonably good movie, and it demonstrated that Montalban had more talent than you might guess based only on his more recognizable roles.

I find myself more and more drawn to watching older movies from the 30s, 40s, and 50s.  Another recent find was My Man Godfrey.  Those old films beat the hell out of the schlock Hollywood puts out these days.

But in some ways most of the most notable things for me about Montalban is that he remained married to his one and only wife for 63 years; she preceded him in death in 2007.  How unlike so many others in Hollywood.

Attack polling in the Fightin' Fifth

I live in the Illinois Fifth Congressional District, which, until recently, was occupied by White House Chief of Staff-designate Rahm Emanuel.  As a result of his resignation, virtually everyone in the Fifth District is running for his seat: there are nearly a dozen Democratic candidates and a handful of Republicans (who realistically have no hope of being elected).  In the past week we have been subjected to at least three "attack polls" in which the pollster basically smears one (or more) of the candidates running (the most recent attacked Sarah Feigenholtz).  We've also received one positive push poll favoring Mike Quigley.  The pollster for the last call could not properly pronounce either "Illinois", "Blagojevich", or "ally"; admittedly "Blagojevich" is hard, but really they should train these people better.  (For the record, the polling company for this poll was Sun Surveys LLC, 305-728-0130)

The primary isn't until March 3, and the election isn't until April 7.  This is going to be really really tiresome.

METRA police search entire train over apparently unconfirmed report of a man with a gun

This morning, according to the Chicago Tribune, Metra police in Lisle, Illinois stopped an express commuter train and forced everyone to disembark and be searched for weapons after an anonymous individual called police to say that he overheard another passenger say he had a gun.  Details are still sketchy, but based on what I've read this is an overreaction and a massive intrusion on personal privacy.

Stopping the train and searching everyone is going to seriously inconvenience everyone on the train; some of the people thus inconvenienced may well lose their jobs for being late to work.  Some employers are not even remotely sympathetic regarding tardiness even in ordinary times, and with today's economy employers often use any excuse whatsoever to terminate employees that they view as "surplus".  If all the police have is an anonymous tipster who merely overheard another person say he has a gun, there just isn't enough cause to justify searching everyone.  What if the tipster mistook or misunderstood what the other person said?  What if the tipster imagined the entire incident, or made it up? 

I would think a more reasonable response would be to have transit police board the train and take up station, one or two in each car and observe, and take further action only if they then observed suspicious behavior.  That course of action would likely be sufficient to prevent harm in the event the report were true (for even if it is true, there's no still no evidence that the person who said he has a gun meant to do anything harmful or even illegal), and would not have massively delayed or even seriously inconvenienced, not to mention forced hundreds of innocent commuters to be subjected to searches without probable cause, compromising their constitutional freedoms.

I'm hoping that as more becomes known about this incident, we'll find out more about the specificity of the report made to the police.

Update: The police are now stating that a "suspicious man" was asking "unusual questions that were security-based" at the Naperville station, and that they stopped the train to search for him.  That would not explain why passengers were being searched for weapons.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Sammamish Exempts Many Antennas from Review Process

The flooding in Washington this past month is having an impact on amateur radio, at least indirectly.  Today's news from Sammamish, Washington has a short piece about the city's efforts to establish an emergency-broadcast station in the AM band for dissemination of emergency information to the populace.  In order to facilitate installing the station, the city passed an exemption to its own laws regarding review of antenna structure construction.  The exemption is broad, covering not only city-owned towers but also "federally licensed amateur radio antennae, citizen band or two-way radio antennae".  If the reporting is correct, this will be a major boon for any hams in Sammamish.  (The actual text of the "emergency ordinance" is here.)

I haven't researched the history, but I imagine what happened in Sammamish is what happened in many places: when the cellular explosion took place some time back, resulting in cell towers popping up virtually everyone, the city reacted by passing a very restrictive antenna ordinance.  Now that the city has experienced a major disaster, and probably discovered that their emergency communications infrastructure is inadequate, they're plowing the ordinance out of the way for basically everyone except cellphone towers, which was the real reason they passed it in the first place (that, and old-style TV satellite antennas, possibly).

Given the recent widespread flooding in Washington, I imagine the likelihood of an effective public objection to the emergency ordinance will be limited.  It's just a question of how long before someone puts up a big-ass contesting station, and the city council is implored to revoke the exemption for hams.  It's a never-ending battle.

Update: While Sammamish is relaxing restrictions, Walla Walla is moving to make them stricter.  It truly is a never-ending battle.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Children continue to say "no" to engineering

There's yet another survey out reporting on the ongoing decline of interest in engineering with American children.  This particular survey was sponsored by the American Society for Quality.  The bit that really stuck out to me: "More girls say their parents are likely to encourage them to become an actress than the number who say their parents are likely to encourage them to become an engineer." 

When I was a kid, we had all sorts of construction toys: Lego, Lincoln Logs, Tinkertoys, Erector.  Most of these are still around today, but there's something decidedly different about them.  Of course, part of it is that they've been made "cheaper": Tinkertoys are now plastic instead of wood, and the old metal Erector sets are all-but-gone (I understand that there's a French company that sells them at exobitant prices), and there's a plastic analog called "Meccano" that is similar but not nearly the same.  Aside from the cheapening of the quality, though, the change I notice more is the "dumbing down", especially of Lego. 

When I first started with Lego, most of the sets consisted of large numbers of relatively ordinary blocks.  You could build just about anything with them, provided you had the creativity to figure out how.  Nowadays, it's very hard to find kits like these.  Virtually all of the Lego kits available for sale in most stores today have far fewer parts, and many of those parts are specialized to the building of one or two specific models, usually a reproduction of some thing from a movie or TV show or similar.  Because the parts are so specialized, and there are so few of them in the kit, really all you can do with the kit is build the one or two designs that it's been made to reproduce.  The child has been reduced from an engineer who designs and builds creations of their own design, to an assembly line worker, tasked to reproduce a design created by someone else. 

Another thing I remember from my youth were the "n in 1" electronic experimenter kits, which had a bunch of electronic components attached to a fiberboard base with connecting terminals between them, and a large supply of wires so you could interconnect them.  The kits also came with a book full of circuits you could build that would do various interesting things, often with suggestions for variations that one could experiment with.  I haven't seen one of these in a store in a long while, although I think you can still get them from a few online merchants.

Of course, this is chicken and egg to some degree; the demand for these sorts of toys is down because children are not interested in such toys, but interest in such toys is going to remain low as long as they're not available.  I think a large part of this is the change in strategies for marketing to children that took place starting in the seventies.  By the mid-eighties virtually all children's toys were tied in some way to a movie or a TV show.  And there just aren't many movies and TV shows that feature engineers, for some reason. 

I recall reading an article a while back about how something like half of all students in China are studying to become engineers.  It's at most 15 percent in the United States, if the ASQ survey is to be believed.  Says something about the direction our two countries are going, doesn't it?

One of the consequences of the explosion of the Internet has been to make being into "technology" cool once again, at least.  And it can't go without notice that the third richest man in the United States got there, at least in part, by being a geek.  So maybe this generation of kids will be more inclined to turn toward careers in technology, and not just in using it.  We can only hope.

(Inspired by this post by Dan KB6NU.)

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Linguistic Jingoism in Nashville

Once again we have an elected public official proposing to require that government officials in his jurisdiction (in this case, Nashville, Tennessee) communicate with the public only in English.  This is nothing new; we've seen countless efforts to impose English as the mandatory community language in cities, counties, and even states all over the country over the past several decades.  But this one has a couple of interesting twists.

First, the proposal requiring communications to be in English was presented in Japanese.  Apparently Councilman Crafton, in addition to being a bigot, is also a smartass.  The Nomic player in me also notes that, should his proposal be adopted, it would be illegal to announce it, because the proposal is not in English and therefore cannot (on its own terms) be communicated to the public.  I suppose it would have to be officially translated to English first.

Second is Mr. Crafton's motivation for this proposal.  Apparently he recently visited a meeting of the California state legislature, at which he noted that several assemblymen there had interpreters at their desks, supposedly because they could not speak English.  This leads me to conclude that Mr. Crafton's true motivation is essentially racist; he (like many racists) is threatened by the increasingly large proportion of the the population in the United States that is Latino in origin, and in particular the recognition that Spanish-speaking Latinos are gaining political power in the United States.  Mandating the use of English for government communications will effectively marginalize and disempower Spanish-speaking citizens, citizens who, as much as anyone else, have the right to choose whoever they want to represent them in their respective governments.  If the majority of your constituency speaks Spanish, it's probably best if you do too. 

Bill Poser at the Language Log points out that Canada has managed to survive for quite some time despite having a national assembly, the members of which do not all speak a single common language.  He also indicates that he doubts that there is any member of the California assembly that cannot speak at least functional English, but I don't really care if that's true or not; if a majority-Spanish-speaking district elects a non-Anglophone to represent them, then I imagine whoever that is will have the sense to hire (or otherwise arrange for) whatever translation services he or she needs to effectively conduct the business of the office.

To me, Mr. Crafton's claimed reason is just the latest in a string of pretexts used by the racists behind their "English First" (or "English Only") proposals as part of their rear-guard effort to stave off their loss of political power to the growing numbers of Spanish-speaking Latinos.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Impeach Blagojevich Buttons

My "Jesus Christ was an Community Organizer" buttons did so well back in the November election that I've decided to do another design, this time for the Blagojevich impeachment. Have fun, and buy lots.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Mnemosyne Study Decks for FCC Amateur Radio Licensing Tests

When I was studying for my FCC license, I used a product called "mnemosyne" to help me learn the required material for the tests.  This is basically memorization aid software, which many people will call "cheating", but I don't really have a problem with using tools like these; I don't think the tests should stand in the way of getting interested people into the hobby.  This method worked for me; after about three weeks of study of 30 to 60 minutes a day, I passed all three elements in one sitting and earned my Amateur Extra license.  My method was to, each day, take all three practice exams first, then run through the material presented by Mnemosyne as far as I could in the time available.  Some days I didn't get through all of the material Mnemosyne had for me, mainly because I was trying to learn all three elements at once.  Doing one element at a time would likely be less daunting.

You can download mnemosyne from their download site, and the decks I used from my own website:
Sorry, I don't have an Element 4 deck right now; I took my exams in April 2008, shortly before the new Extra pool came into service, and I haven't made a new deck for the new Element 4 yet.

Update: I've put together a new Element 4 deck. I haven't tested it yet so it might be glitched in spots, and you will have to get the diagrams from the NCVEC site yourself. (This also applies for the single diagram used in the General pool.)

Second update: Ben Jackson (N1WBV) reported a problem with the Element 4 deck.  I made some manual edits to the generated XML and was able to load the deck into Mnemosyne running on Ubuntu.  Hopefully whatever I changed fixed the problem.  If you downloaded the E4 deck before January 14th, you should download it again.

Blagojevich Impeached

So, the hot news today is that the Illinois House of Representatives voted 114 to 1 to impeach sitting governor Rod Blagojevich.  This raises some interesting issues.

The 95th General Assembly of the State of Illinois turns into a pumpkin at either midnight or noon (not clear on which), Wednesday, January 12th.  If the Senate doesn't complete the trial prior to then, the bill of impeachment passed up by the House dies on the table when the 95th assembly is forcibly adjourned sine die at that time.  While the 96th Assembly could certainly take up the question anew, it would require the newly assembled House to reimpeach Blagojevich.

In addition, it takes the Governor to convene a newly-assembled Senate; it's unclear to me what happens if the Governor fails to appear in Springfield to convene the Senate on Wednesday as required by law.  Not to mention that last I heard the Governor had a court date in Federal court in Chicago Wednesday afternoon, which puts him in the unenviable position of having to be in two places at the same time.  (It's possible that that court date has been rescheduled or postponed; I haven't heard.)  If Blagojevich refuses to convene the 96th Senate, it's unclear to me what would be required to initiate the 96th session of the Illinois State Senate.

A comment I've seen a lot from people regarding the Burris appointment is that the Assembly should have mandated a special election when it had a chance.  What this disregards is even if the Assembly had passed a bill altering the method of appointing replacement Senators, Blagojevich could easily have refused to sign the bill, delaying its adoption for up to 60 days, during which time he could easily have appointed anyone he wanted.  Also, adopting the bill would have required a three-fifths majority in both houses, because to be effective the bill would have had to specify an effective date other than the constitutional default of June 1, 2009.

I half expect Blago to refuse to appear before the Senate for the impeachment trial.  It also wouldn't surprise me if the Illinois State Police end up having to haul him out of his Chicago office by main force after he is convicted.  It's increasingly obvious that Blago is loose in the noggin.  The odds of him pulling a King Charles the First here seem pretty strong.  He might even sue the Legislature.  It's bound to be fun.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Why The Hell Would You Want A Ham Radio?

In a recent post on his blog, Robert V. Bolton (KE7ZEA) reflects on the above question, which was asked of him by a neighbor. In his post, he asks "why would the average person want a ham radio?"

The simple answer is that the average person simply wouldn't want a ham radio, any more than the average person would want a finish planer, an anvil, or a Jacquard loom.  Ham radio simply isn't for everyone, any more than is woodworking, swordsmithing, painting, writing, or just about any other activity that isn't essential to personal maintenance. Fundamentally, there are two reasons why one would get a ham radio (or a ham radio license). One of them is because some other activity that one is interested in doing involves, or would be easier to do using, ham radio. The other is because one has a raw fascination with radio itself and with what can be done with radio, and having a ham radio license allows you to experiment without as much risk of getting in trouble.

I don't have a good feel for what proportion of hams fall into each of these categories, and I suspect there's quite a lot of overlap. I admit to feeling that those in the second category—the "hardcore radio geeks"—are somehow "purer" than those who are "hams of convenience", but I suppose that's not really fair.  And I'm not really sure where so-called "radiosport" falls in this scheme of things.

Also, the set of activities that are enabled or enhanced by having a ham radio or a ham radio license is quite large.  I mentioned in a previous blogpost that quite a few people in Indiana are obtaining ham radio licenses just so they can use a scanner while in a car.  This is an example of a totally artificial incentive to become a ham, driven entirely by the vagaries of Indiana's mobile scanner law; many of these people have no real interest in radio for its own sake, but are instead driven by whatever it is that drives people to listen to scanners, a motivation I confess I don't understand. 

SkyWarn is another program that drives people who are not fundamentally interested in radio into ham radio.  Stormspotters and stormchasers often get ham radio licenses not because they are interested in radio for its own sake, but because SkyWarn has developed over time to use amateur radio frequencies and repeaters as a primary means of communication.  Ironically, the spread of terrestrial cellphone coverage over the United States has reduced the importance of ham radio to SkyWarn, although it's certainly true that the ham radio communication channel continues to be important to volunteer severe weather reporting—for now.

One of the motivations that used to draw people to ham radio, but not so much, was the desire for communication with other people, often over long distances.  It used to be that if you wanted to chat with someone halfway across the country, or the world, the only way to do that without paying exorbitant telephone toll rates was going to be ham radio.  The Internet has completely undermined this motivation, however.  I talk to people from all over the world on a daily basis, in text and occasionally even in voice (via services like Skype), at no cost to me beyond that of my internet connection.  The connection may not be terribly reliable at times, but then again neither was the ham radio connection, what with sunspot cycles and solar flares and all the other vagaries of propogation.  I think this motivation drew a lot of people to the hobby in the middle part of last century, and is probably the basis of statements like Jeff Pulver's claim that twitter is "[t]he Ham Radio of Today".  At the same time, that motivation is no longer an effective draw, and that likely has a lot to do with the constant parade of predictions of the death of ham radio, as people who were drawn to the hobby for that reason find that there is an increasing dearth of likeminded people left in the hobby.

I'm not really sure what motivates people into contesting.  I don't participate in contesting, and don't really understand the appeal, but it sure seems to be popular with some people.  I'd be curious to hear if there's anyone who became a ham explicitly to participate in contests.  Much the same can be said of explicitly working toward awards such as "Worked All States"; I rather doubt that many people became hams for the explicit reason of accomplishing some award or set of awards, but instead such motivations come up after one has been in the hobby for some time. 

There's also the entire "EmComm" aspect of ham radio, which has been discussed quite a bit on Twitter and elsewhere recently.  Emergency communication support is clearly contemplated as part of the official purposes for the existence of amateur radio (at least in the United States), but of late the quality of that support seems to have lagged quite a bit.  This aspect of ham radio also seems to attract a particular type of individual known derogatorily as a "whacker": someone who wants to be involved in police, fire, or other first-response public safety activities, but is either unwilling or unable to complete the training or accept the responsibilities of a full-fledged police officer or firefighter.  These people often get involved in emcomm groups (such as ARES) because the barrier to entry is very low (many ARES groups will take anyone who shows up) and membership often gains them access to emergency operation centers and other first-response organizations, and may give them impressive-looking documentation to flash at people or even the legal authorization they need to mount a lightbar on their car.  Unfortunately, many of these people have no real understanding of or competence at what they're supposed to be doing, create more problems than they solve, and give amateur radio a poor name with both real emergency management entities and the public generally. 

I imagine that the analysis of why any particular ham became a ham, and why he or she remains a ham, would reveal a mix of motivations.  I have some clue as to what drew me to the hobby, and I must admit that it's a mix of several different things: a desire to know more about radio and electronics, a desire to give something back to the community, a desire for camaraderie.

Fundamentally, though, if you can't think of a reason why you would want a ham radio, you probably don't.  If you ask me, the recruitment strategy really needs to be more along the line of finding people who really are interested and helping them get started, rather than finding people who fundamentally aren't really interested, and giving them an excuse to be involved anyway.  Of course, there's probably some people out there who don't realize that they would be  interested simply because they don't really know what ham radio is.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Poland's Independence Day and Knight Rider

So I happened to look at Google Trends just now. The #5 top search right now is "Poland's Independence Day", which is kinda odd because Independence Day in Poland is November 11th (or at least so says Wikipedia). But what I found even odder is that under "related searches" for this term is "Knight Rider".

Now, I've long known that the Germans have a completely unreasonable infatuation with David Hasselhoff and the Knight Industries 2000. Please don't tell me that this infection has spread to Poland. Maybe it has something to do with cabbage.

While we're on the topic: here's the Knight Industries 2000 Lawn Mower. Or at least someone wishing there was such a thing.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Macworld 2009: The Macbook Wheel

So it's going to be a close call as to whether the top story out of Macworld 2009 is Steve Jobs' hormone imbalance or the recently announced Macbook Wheel.  While the latter's relatively poor usability will probably hamper its adoption in the workplace (where people have to actually be able to send emails in under an hour), the total coolness value will more than overwhelm the usability problems for people who are just using it to dick around, which is pretty much everyone with a Mac anyway.

If there's going to be something better to come out of Macworld, I can't think of what it would be.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Galactic Alignment

Much ado is being made in the blogosphere about a recent announcement that the winter solstice will be aligned with the galactic plane in 2012.  I even saw one article claim that this would herald the dawning of the fifth age, or some such nonsense.  However, as Earth and Sky points out, the Earth, as seen from the Sun, crosses the galactic plane twice a year.  And the Sun, as seen from the Earth, does the same thing.  This sort of crossing is no more unordinary than the first day of summer.

Of course, the day on which the Sun crosses the galactic plane (as seen from Earth) changes slowly, because of the precession of the equinoxes.  So what makes 2012 slightly more interesting is that the two days on which the Sun will cross the galactic plane that year happen to align with the two solstices.  This happens only once about every 13,000 years.  That's a pretty uncommon event, and so there is some significance to that, I suppose.  It's an amusing coincidence that the Mayan "long count" calendar "rolls over" near the winter solstice in 2012.  Any Mayans still extant on that date are bound to have a big-ass party (to them, it would be like Y2K on super-steroids), but there's no more cosmic significance to it than that.

So celebrate this unusual alignment if it so pleases you.  But, no, this isn't going to result in humanity "ascending from the 4th dimension to the 5th".  Whatever that means.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Twitter is the Ham Radio of Our Generation

Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...Image via CrunchBase

"Twitter is the Ham Radio of our generation". Saw that on Twitter this morning (I monitor all tweets containing "ham radio" or "amateur radio"). Of course, this isn't true.

Twitter is, fundamentally, a public instant messaging service. In that respect it does resemble one aspect of ham radio, the VHF repeater. But in this respect Twitter just as much resembles either CB or FRS, if not more so. And the inane chatter of your average local VHF repeater is only a tiny fraction of what ham radio is.

Fundamentally, what Mike Germano's comment really illustrates, to me at least, is the widespread lack of understanding in the general public of what ham radio really is about. While it's certainly true that some hams do little more than habituate on a local repeater and chatter inanely, most hams do far more than this. For the most part, ham radio is about exploring what can be done with radio. This covers such a huge range of possibilities that no one ham will likely ever do them all in a single lifetime. While modern technology (including many, such as the cell phone, which have origins in ham radio) have made available to the public communication methods that were originally only available to those with ham radio licenses, fundamentally that's not why most hams become hams. It's actually really hard to give a single reason why people become hams, because there are so many different things you can do with a license. For example, in Indiana it is illegal to have a scanner in your car unless you fall into one of several exception classes; one of the exceptions is if you are a licensed ham, and so we are getting people in Indiana getting a ham license solely so they can use a scanner in the car.

I can only assume that the attention to this idea is at least in part due to the Twitterati hearing about the noise related to HamFeed and the thread on QRZ about it (which contains some choice silliness, but the QRZ forums are good at that). It's clear that we need to do more to educate the public of what ham radio has to offer.

And, as Ben Jackson pointed out in reply to my retweet of Mike's tweet, "there's no license exam for Twitter". Imagine what that would be like.

(Update: See also Jeff Pulver's "twitter: The Ham Radio (two way radio) of Today", and a response to Jeff's article.)

(Second update: On reflection, I realize part of Mr. Pulver's problem is that he was likely a "communicator" ham, a style of ham that dominated ham radio through the 50s, 60s, and 70s. The "communicator" is falling by the wayside, however, so Mr. Pulver's problem is that he's just woefully out of date.)