Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The Alphabet, According to Google

I did this back in September, when "instant search" became available on Google.  Basically I typed each letter in and noted the first result.

A is for "Amazon"
B is for "Best Buy"
C is for "Craigslist"
D is for "Dictonary"
E is for "Ebay"
F is for "Facebook"
G is for "Gmail"
H is for "Hotmail"
I is for "Ikea"
J is for "Jewel"
K is for "Kohls"
L is for "Lowes"
M is for "Mapquest"
N is for "Netflix"
O is for "Orbitz"
P is for "Pandora"
Q is for "Quotes"
R is for "Ravinia"
S is for "Sears"
T is for "Target"
U is for "UPS"
V is for "Verizon"
W is for "Weather"
X is for "XBox"
Y is for "Yahoo"
Z is for "Zappos"

Friday, November 26, 2010

Nicki Minaj, Food Network, Turkey and Black Friday: hot topics for November 26, 2010

I took Thanksgiving off from the blog, it being Thanksgiving, and there wasn't a lot of movement on the hot list since my last post on Tuesday; just the same topics jockeying about.  However, today there's several new ones, most of them variations on "Black Friday".  Black Friday is, of course, the colloquialism for the first day after Thanksgiving, traditionally considered the first day of the Christmas shopping season, although these days that starts around the middle of October now.  Black Friday first started showing up back on November 4th, but the term has been increasingly prominent and appearing in more variations over the past week or so.  Best Buy, the electronics retailer, is the first name to pop up; not surprising as their portfolio likely matches best with the interests of internetoholics.

Turkey and the Food Network no doubt both pop up because of Thanksgiving itself and its tradition of gorging ourselves on turkey and other such foods.  Although it's now after the fact, I recommend brining your turkey; Alton Brown has a good recipe.

The odd one out (that is, a topic not apparently related to Thanksgiving) is Nicki Minaj, apparently a pink-haired rapper from either Jamaica or Queens.  (The pink hair is apparently a wig.)  The only interesting thing about her that she seems to be claiming to be bisexual in order to get media attention (or appear sexier) then subsequently denying that she's bisexual to avoid controversy.  Most of her gossip-rag media attention (other than the present week, which appears related to an album release) seems centered on speculation about her orientation.  The consensus appears to be that she's a "fauxmosexual": fundamentally straight, but willing to act otherwise because that creates buzz and sells records.  Whatever; I've already learned way more about this whole cluster of concepts than I ever cared to.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The TSA: Hot topic for November 22, 2010

After a weekend of the same old topics jockeying about (the only one new one to show up was Erin Barry, who is just another player in the petty drama that I mentioned on Friday), a completely new term showed up late last night. And for once it's actually a matter of some real significance: the TSA, or Transportation Security Agency.  The TSA is in the news lately because of John Tyner's now-famous "Don't touch my junk!" ultimatum, issued in San Diego to TSA agents who decided he needed a "pat-down".  His outrage has led to a groundswell of complaints and commentary regarding TSA screening practices and made the TSA the whipping boy of the day.

And to be fair, the TSA deserves it.  Current US airport security practices were never really calculated to stop determine terrorists.  Their main intention was always to increase the general anxiety of the American public about foreign terrorism, in order to perpetuate the need for such invasive practices.  This was done for two reasons: one, to make Americans more complacent about having their privacy, and right to travel freely, shredded, and two, to create revenue for the companies that manufacture and sell security solutions.  The actual practices used are designed to be extremely visible; that they're annoying just adds to the effect because it just adds to the visibility and thus keeps public anxiety at a high.  That they're almost completely ineffective (either as designed or as implemented) in actually stopping a determined terrorist is, quite simply, irrelevant; that was never their purpose anyway.  This is "security theatre", plain and simple: the government is pretending to provide security as a cover for what it's really doing, which is eroding your rights a bit at a time, and hoping you won't notice because you're too scared to care.

There is now an Internet-organized boycott of TSA body scanners scheduled for this Wednesday, which is (because of the Thanksgiving holiday) anticipated to be the busiest travel day of the year.  The government has already whined about this, urging people not to participate in the boycott because it would create delays at airports.  That is, I imagine, the point.

Oh, and for those of you who think you'll just travel by train: Amtrak passengers are subject to security screenings too.  For now these aren't as intrusive as those mandated by the TSA at airports, but that could change at any time.  TSA has authority over Amtrak and can, at any time, change the regulations for riding on the nation's passenger trains, as well.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Tony Parker: Hot topic for November 19, 2010

Today's only new item is Tony Parker, a basketball player who is in the spotlight apparently because he was caught sending sexually explicit text messages ("sexting") to the wife of another player (whose name is apparently Erin Barry).  This seems to have come out in the context of his divorce, which is, of course, totally unsurprising.

I'm sure this sort of thing goes on all the time, and this is only making the news now because it involves both a basketball player (Parker) of some repute and also a television celebrity: his soon-to-be ex-wife is Eva Longoria, who is apparently somehow involved in Desparate Housewives, which I understand is a TV show of some fame.  Ok, whatever: two people who are famous for things I don't generally pay attention to.

Oh well, I suppose the masses need their opiates.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Kate Middleton, Emma Watson and Four Loko: Hot topics for November 18, 2010

Three new items today, this time from an upcoming movie (Emma Watson), an upcoming royal wedding (Kate Middleton), and an energy drink (Four Loko).

Emma Watson presumably shows up because of her appearance as Hermione Granger in the upcoming Harry Potter movie.  I haven't been able to bring myself to read the HP books: first, I am still peeved at Rowling for going after fan websites for "copyright infringement", but more importantly, from what I have read in excerpt and in summary, I just don't like her sort of writing.  She breaks at least some of Lawrence Watt-Evans' laws of fantasy; at the very least the second, fifth, and sixth.  As far as I can tell, in her books magic is used almost entirely as a macguffin to advance the plot or to create a desired effect, rather than being an integral and necessary part of the fabric of the universe against which the characters interact.  (Contrast the role of magic in LWE's Ethshar books, which I adore, or in his equally excellent Dragon trilogy.)  I also don't like the racist and classist overtones in her writing.  Also, like so many fantasy novelists, I have caught the glimmer of what I call "superman disease": as a series like this progresses the main characters become increasingly powerful, with experience and time, forcing their opponents to be equally inflated so as to make for interesting conflicts.  This typically results in each book ending with some massive conflagration, only to be outdone in the next book by an even more massive conflagration.  (This does make for good movie material, admittedly.)  For another example of this, see Raymond Feist's Riftwar saga, although I think he did well in recovering from that with the later Serpentwar saga, set many years later with entirely new primary characters.  Avoiding this basically requires the author to create a complete and consistent universe in which many stories with different characters can be set; this is far harder than just creating a handful of characters and just enough of a universe for them to move around in.  Another reason I like Lawrence Watt-Evans. 

Kate Middleton is, for those who don't follow the British royalty, Prince William's recently-announced fianceĆ©.  Royal-watching is not one of my major pastimes, but apparently both the dress she wore and the ring William gave her are hot items on the "celebrity replicas" market.  Ok, whatever. 

The last item, Four Loko, is of somewhat more interest: it's one of those caffeinated alcoholic beverages that the FDA has been going after of late.  Four Loko is apparently the first such beverage to be decaffeinated in response to the FDA's effective ban on the addition of caffeine to malt liquor beverages.  One has to wonder if this will also apply to Cuba Libres or to Irish coffee.  Then again I don't think anyone sells a premixed Cuba Libre or Irish coffee (nor would I want to drink such a thing), and besides those are made using distilled spirits instead of malt liquor.  Frankly I find energy drinks revolting; while I have no problems with caffeine (I have three or four cups of rather strong coffee a day, and also occasionally drink Mountain Dew or Pepsi when I can find the 'throwback' formulation made with sugar instead of corn syrup), one of either guarana or taurine (I know not which) has a flavor which is nearly vomit-inducing for me.  So I'm not going to cry any tears over the loss of these products.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Manny Pacquiao and Skyline: Hot topics for November 16, 2010

Today brought two new items to the top ten list: Manny Pacquiao (a boxer) and Skyline (a movie).

I'm a bit annoyed to be writing about a boxer or about a boxing match.  And so I won't.  You want to find out r Frankly I think boxing is just about the most barbaric of the competitive sports we still engage in, even more so than American football, and would be quite happy to see it go away entirely.  Boxing was a far higher profile event when I was younger; I think Mike Tyson did a lot to make the sport disrespectable.  Which, to be frank, I'm quite entirely happy with.  I will admit when I first saw the search term ("Pacquiao v. Margarito") my first thought was "Is a pacquiao some sort of new cocktail?"  But that would have been "margarita".  My bad.

The other rising item today is Skyline, which is apparently a low-budget alien invasion movie.  MTV doesn't seem to think much of Skyline: not good enough to be good, and not bad enough to be good for being bad.  I'm almost as uninvolved in movies as I am in sports, so I won't be seeing this one.  This is another one where I wasn't able to predict what the search was for; I was kind of hoping it would have been for the chili, but again my hopes were dashed.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Applebee's: Hot topic for November 14, 2010

There was nothing new yesterday (which is good because I was busy) and only one rising topic today: Applebee's.  Best I can tell this is because Applebee's offered free food to veterans on Veteran's Day.  Fairly nice of them, even if Applebee's food is some of the most uninteresting food on the planet.  I haven't been in an Applebee's in probably ten years; in general I tend to disprefer chain restaurants, favoring instead to eat at unique local establishments.

In other news, I'm working on a ham radio FAQ based mainly on the searches that I see hitting this blog.  Not sure how "frequent" these questions are, but anyway.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Keith Olbermann, Cam Newton, and Wiz Khalifa: Hot topics for November 12, 2010

Once again today, there are four new rising topics today.  One of them, Veteran's Day, is out of date (having been yesterday), but didn't show up until today presumably because of the seven day sampling window.  Also showing up today for the first time (that I've noticed, at least) are MSNBC political opinion journalist Keith Olbermann, Auburn college football player Cam Newton, and rapper Wiz Khalifa.

Keith Olbermann's appearance in the rising topics comes later than I would have expected (but again, consider the seven day sampling window) after his suspension last Friday (and almost immediate reinstatement) for the offense of donating to Democratic political campaigns.  I think the best headline I saw in connection to this was "News flash: Keith Olbermann might be a Democrat!"  Anyone who hadn't figured that out by now had to be entirely dense.  MSNBC also apparently didn't realize that people would notice that they let Joe Scarborough get away with making donations in previous years.  In any case, Olbermann is so transparently partisan that there's no risk that anyone could reasonably suggest that this somehow impacts his "impartiality" as an opinion journalist.  Boner move, MSNBC.

Cam Newton is a college football player at Auburn who is apparently the focus of a scandal involving paid recruitment, which is a major no-no in the college football world, even though I suspect nearly every big-name college skirts, evades, circumvents, or just outright ignores the rules in this area.  College football is big money, and the big-name colleges (like Auburn) spend a great deal of money on getting the best players so they can get even more money from the businesses who want to use them as walking billboards to drive sheeplike fans to buy merchandise they don't need.  College football exploits the players, creates incentives for colleges to make decisions that don't favor academics or the social interests of their students, and has all sorts of disproportionate impacts on women.  And with all the recent information on football causing serious, irreversible brain damage, I think it's really time that we reconsider the merits of this "pastime" as a national obsession.

The third rising item today is for yet another bad-boy rapper getting arrested; today's lucky winner is Wiz Khalifa, who was arrested in North Carolina for possession of marijuana on his tour bus.  Frankly I don't care if a rapper does pot in his bus, and I don't see why North Carolina should care, either.  But if you're a prosecuting attorney, and you can nail a high-profile out-of-state bad boy with an easy bust, hey, go for it.  It makes getting reelected easier.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

NYC Marathon, Conan O'Brian, Zenyatta, and the Dallas Cowboys: Hot topics for November 11, 2010

I haven't posted one of these in a few days because there haven't been any new rising terms, just the same ones as previous days, with some permutations in the order.  But today were have four new ones.

The Dallas Cowboys are presumably up because they recently fired their coach, but also possibly because they forgot to renew their domain name.  Oops.

Conan's up because his new show on TBS premiered on Monday.  Conan has became something of a folk hero, especially on the Internet, after NBC gave him the Tonight Show, then ripped it away from him after their ill-considered experiment of putting Leno in prime time predictably backfired.

Zenyatta, meanwhile, is a horse.  And apparently not just any horse; this horse had a 19-race unbeaten streak before coming in second by a head in the Breeders' Cup Classic on Saturday.  Reportedly she's being sent to pasture to be bred with an "as-yet-undetermined" stallion.  I fully expected Zenyatta to be the name of yet another celebrity musician or performer; her being a horse wasn't high on my expectations.

The fastest rising term for today, though, is for the NYC Marathon.  It seems odd to me that it should be rising so aggressively now that we're now four days out from the actual event (it was run on Sunday), but the seven day averaging window often means that a single-day spike won't show up for several days.  I think marathons are a bit silly (to me running is something you do to get away from bears, not something you do for the sheer sake of it), but to each their own.  In any case, I have to admit being rather impressed with Edison Pena, who managed to finish the marathon (in six hours, a firmly respectable time) only a few weeks after being hauled out of a collapsed mine in Chile.

Monday, November 08, 2010

The Kinect: Hot topic for November 8, 2010

The only new rising topic for today is the Microsoft XBox Kinect (displacing Divali, the Hindu festival of light).  The Kinect is, for those who don't already know, an addon for the XBox that provides "controllerless control" by using a combination of posture recognition, facial recognition, and voice recognition to allow control of the XBox merely by moving around within its recognition space.  I'm totally not a console gamer at all (the only console game I've ever had was a Pong game my father bought us back in 1978), but I'm seriously impressed by this technology.  If it performs half as well as Microsoft claims it does, it'll still be very impressive.

Interestingly, there is already FUD spreading about Kinect: several sources are claiming that the device "doesn't recognize black people", based on a GameSpot comment that the Kinect had difficulty recognizing some darker-skinned employees under certain lighting conditions.  In further testing by GameSpot, they were able to make it fail on white people too, and changing shirt colors seemed to make a difference.

It'll be interesting to see how long it'll be before similar input devices become available for use with general computing environments.  Probably a while yet.  The Kinect isn't that precise, but in the environment it's being used in it doesn't have to be.

Sims 3, Late Night, and Transfiguration of Metals

Ok, I know, this is a bit off my usual beaten path, but I don't care. I've played the Sims since 2000, and I freely admit to wasting a lot of time on it.

In the Sims 3, since World Adventures, there has been a pair of objects (the Carter XL Display Cases) that can be filled up with objects and "irreversibly transfiguricated" (more commonly known as transfigurated) into other objects. What object one gets as a result of a transfiguration depends on what objects one puts into it, along with some random factors. Various people who know how to look at the scripting language that the Sims uses internally have done so and posted descriptions of the relevant algorithms. I spent quite some time exploring this for the special case of transfigurating metals, and have a simulator now that can predict the result of transfiguration for any particular combination of metals for a game with the World Adventures and Ambitions expansion packs installed (WA+A). I could do the same for just WA if I wanted to set up an install that had just WA loaded, but I've been too lazy to do this yet.

Part of the algorithm for metals works by XORing together the internal OIDs of the metals involved, and then using that as a index into the list of metals (modulo the number of metals) to generate a random metal. The index is then pushed through a PRNG (pseudorandom number generator), and repeated until metals totaling more than a certain value are created. This worked fine and good in prior versions, with the longest string being about 8 or 9 metals in WA+A, where there were 14 metals. However, while in WA alone (which had 13 metals) it was possible (with some care) to create any metal using this process, in WA+A five of the metals (silver, palladium, copper, titanium, and mercury) could not be produced at all, and two more (supernovium and woohooium) were very hard to produce. This is, no doubt, because the low bit of the XOR result is always 0 (because all the OIDs have a low byte of 0), and the modulus 14 of an even number is always even, and so that effectively excluded half of the metals (the ones with odd indices in the metals table) from being the "first result". Add to that a relatively "inaggressive" PRNG and you get a relatively sparse result set, which is what I had noticed with WA+A.

Late Night (LN) added two more metals; as a result, in WA+A+LN, there are 16 metals. Those of you with some experience with generating hash codes will immediately understand where this all goes belgium, but I'll explain it for the rest of you. A modulus of 16 results in only 4 bits of the source value contributing to the resulting index. And all of the OIDs in use have a 0 in the low byte (for whatever reason). As a result, the random value generated by this process is always 0, which corresponds to iron, the cheapest of the metals. To make matters worse, the PRNG EA uses apparently isn't that "random": it appears to map all values that have a low nibble of 0 to values that also have a low nibble of 0. As a result, every metal after the first is also iron. So, instead of getting a "random" (but predictable with much effort) result of various metals (which makes the process both interesting and potentially useful within the context of game play), the result of every transmogrification in Sims 3 with WA+A+LN is a huge stack of iron bars, which is neither interesting nor valuable within the context of game play; furthermore, the resulting stacks are often so large (in some cases, one hundred or more, although the game doesn't show it) that it corrupts the player's inventory, rendering that game effectively unplayable and forcing a retreat to the last save point. Here's hoping you had one.

This wouldn't have shown up in testing with just the base game plus LN, or with A+LN, because in those games there is no transmogrifier (it's a WA expansion item), nor in testing with just WA+LN because in that game there are 15 metals and with 15 metals the randomness of the distribution will be nearly as good as it was in WA alone (with 13), possibly even better.

I had a lot of fun figuring out the matrix for WA+A, and was really looking forward to doing in in WA+A+LN. A shame it had to be completely broken instead. We can only hope that EA will fix this in a forthcoming patch; however, any patch is going to mean a new algorithm (or at least a different PRNG), which means all the work I (and others) did for the preceding algorithm will probably be wasted.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Kik, Diwali, and Lil Wayne: Hot topics for November 7, 2010

There are three new rising items today: something called "Kik", Diwali, and Lil Wayne.

Kik appears to be the Kik Instant Messenger, which is a substitute IM service for smartphones, available for Blackberries, Android, and the iPhone.  The appeal is, supposedly, that you can send instant messages without paying for them, by using your data connection instead of a carrier SMS.  The downside is that your recipient has to be using Kik as well.  I don't see what this offers ahead of Google Talk, which has been available for all three platforms for far longer, and has a far larger user base as well.  Perhaps I'm missing something here.

Diwali is, of course, the annual Hindu festival of lights, which started Friday, November 5th.

The third rising item for today is more celebrity gossip, as rapper Lil Wayne seems to be flaunting his probation by posing for a photograph with a glass of cognac.  Not quite sure what it is about rappers that forces them to flagrantly and stupidly break the law, but there you have it.

Daylight saving time ended this morning, so don't forget to adjust any old-fashioned clocks you have that don't automatically adjust.  And it's still not too late to change the batteries in your smoke detectors.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Tony Parker: Hot topic for November 19, 2010

Today's only new item is Tony Parker, a basketball player who is in the spotlight apparently because he was caught sending sexually explicit text messages ("sexting") to the wife of another player (someone by the name of Erin Barry, apparently).  This seems to have come out in the context of his divorce, which is, of course, totally unsurprising.

I'm sure this sort of thing goes on all the time, and this is only making the news now because it involves both a basketball player (Parker) of some repute and also a television celebrity: his soon-to-be ex-wife is Eva Longoria, who is apparently somehow involved in Desparate Housewives, which I understand is a TV show of some fame.  Ok, whatever: two people who are famous for things I don't generally pay attention to.

Oh well, I suppose the masses need their opiates.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Andy Irons, Demi Lovato, and legal pot: Hot topics for November 5, 2010

The big item for today appears to be Andy Irons, a pro surfer who died of unknown causes, but possibly dengue fever, on November 2.  Dengue fever, now that's a disease you don't hear about much, although it's actually relatively common in less-developed parts of the world.  I suppose it's not entirely unreasonable that a surfer might catch it.

The other up-and-coming item has to do with a Disney exploitee by the name of Demi Lovato, who apparently beat up another performer recently.  If there's anything that I pay less attention to than celebrity gossip, it's celebrity gossip involving those insipidly disgusting child "performers" being exploited by America's most odious cultural hegemon.  Perhaps we could arrange for them to all catch dengue fever.  Or, better yet, for their corporate managers to do so.

Searches for election results are, unsurprisingly, rising, with an apparent special focus on those in California and especially Proposition 19, the California ballot initiative to legalize pot there, which failed, gaining only 44% of the vote.  I guess the rest of their supporters were too stoned to figure out how to find the polling place.  In any case, even if it the proposition had passed there would still have been the federal prohibition on marijuana to overcome.  Still going to be a while before you can toke up anywhere you want. 

Football player Randy Moss, who I mentioned yesterday, is holding at number 5; I haven't looked to see if there's anything new about him, as I really don't care.  The upcoming change back to standard time this weekend fills out the remainder of the top ten for today.  Don't forget to change the batteries in your smoke detector.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Capri Anderson, Randy Moss, and Jon Stewart: Hot topics for November 4, 2010

Apparently the hot story from the past few days has something to do with actor Charlie Sheen, a porn actress called Capri Anderson, and a trashed hotel room.  I can't be bothered to make sense out of the social gossip reporting, so if you really care Google's over that way.

Normally I care about as much about sports as I do about celebrity gossip (which is why I am mainly happy that the World Series is over, and so I won't be hearing much about it even if it is still trending up at the moment).  However, I must admit that I am slightly amused by the situation surrounding Randy Moss' low opinion of Tinucci's Restaurant, which apparently provides catering services to the team Moss used to play for before recently being traded.  In response to his verbal tirade about the quality of their food, the restaurant is offering a free lunch to the first 50 people who show up and agree to trade in their Randy Moss fanwear.  Still, I'd be far more interested in Maurice Moss than in Randy Moss any day.

Please note that daylight stupidity time (sorry, daylight savings time) ends this weekend.  Of course, having grown up in Indiana daylight savings time seems strange to me.  Plus, with the recent changes we're now on daylight saving time from early March until early October, or about two thirds of the year.  Frankly I don't see why we don't just leap forward next March and not bother leaping back ever again.  It's not like solar noon is anywhere near clock noon in most of the country anyway.  But then again, if we did this, how would we remember to check the batteries in our smoke detectors?

Jon Stewart continues to trend high, probably because of the combination of his recent interview with Barack Obama and the Rally to Restore Freedom (and/or Fear) that Comedy Central recently held in Washington.  Stewart has, perhaps improbably, emerged as one of the most prominent voices of this generation.  I haven't watched any of this week's shows yet—they're on the TiVo—so it's also quite likely that he's had some interesting, or at least amusing, comments on the election results as well.

Limewire continues to trend up even as it disintegrates under the force of the court's adverse ruling in its battle against the RIAA.  Hard to imagine what is left for them.  This was pretty much inevitable; what surprises me is how long it took and how long Limewire held out.

Searches for "Black Friday", the traditional name for the Friday-after-Thanksgiving shopaganza, are starting to trend up, presumably as people start to plan for their annual shopping fix.  There's even an "official" Black Friday 2010 website.  Just the other day I heard a radio commentator (WBBM in Chicago) suggest that Black Friday is starting early this year, with pre-Christmas sales starting even before Halloween. 

The tenth rising search at the moment is for "Black Ops", which seems strange at first until one realizes it's for the next installment of the Call of Duty franchise, due out in about a week.  I don't personally care for first-person (or third-person) shooters, so I won't comment further.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The IT-Who?

T1B01: What is the ITU?

  1. An agency of the United States Department of Telecommunications Management
  2. A United Nations agency for information and communication technology issues
  3. An independent frequency coordination agency
  4. A department of the FCC

The correct answer is B–A United Nations agency for information and communication technology issues.

(Authority: 97.3(a)(28))

I touched on this topic back when talking about T1A02. The International Telecommunications Union, or ITU, is a very important entity in the broader scheme of radio regulation. The ITU is an agency of the United Nations that deals with information and communication technology; prior to being adopted into the United Nations it was a treaty organization that dealt primarily with the cooperative regulation of telegraphy and other uses of radio across international borders. As radio signals
have a bad habit of refusing to stop at national boundaries, this is
pretty much necessary, especially with respect to the world-reaching HF
bands, in which a station in South America can easily interfere with a
station in Russia. The ITU's rules do not apply directly to amateurs, or indeed to anyone; rather, the ITU makes recommendations which member nations are encouraged to adopt.

The ITU has a significant influence over amateur radio; in their role of creating the International Table of Allocations, they set aside the spectrum that virtually all countries will reserve for amateur radio operators. An example of how the ITU influences amateur radio arose at the World Administrative Radio Conference (a quadrennial meeting of the ITU) in 1979 that resulted in the so-called "WARC" bands of 30 meters, 17 meters, and 12 meters being opened up to amateur use. The United States has historically been one of the most aggressive protectors of amateur radio at the ITU; few nations have as solid a history of arguing in favor of protecting amateur radio spectrum at the international level.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Special operations: Auxiliary stations

T1A11: Which of the following stations transmits signals over the air from a remote receive site to a repeater for retransmission?

  1. Beacon station
  2. Relay station
  3. Auxiliary station
  4. Message forwarding station

The correct answer is C–Auxiliary station.

(Authority: 97.3(a)(7))

This question broaches, albeit only lightly, the topic of what are called "special operations". There are, in subpart C of the amateur radio regulations, a number of special ways to use, or operate, a radio station that are subject to special rules. These special rules typically impose certain restrictions while relaxing others. For example, an auxiliary station (the topic of this question) is an amateur station (other than a packet station) that is transmitting communications point-to-point within a system of cooperating amateur stations. Auxiliary stations are not permitted to operate on bands below 222 MHz, but are allowed to be automatically controlled (that is, no control operator at the control point). Auxiliary stations which have been coordinated also gain some extra protection against interference, and the general rule against one-way communications is relaxed for auxiliary stations.

The most common use for auxiliary stations is in conjunction with a repeater station. Two linked repeaters may use a pair of auxiliary stations to establish the link, or a remote receiver may use an auxiliary station to connect back to the main transmitter. The W9DUP repeater, operated by the DuPage Amateur Radio Club (of which I am a member) uses an auxiliary station to connect its IRLP node to the repeater, since the IRLP computer cannot be placed at the repeater's location (no Internet access there).

There are several special operations listed in Subpart C, but this is the only one that the NCVEC Question Pool Committee saw fit to include on the Technician pool.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Just what is a "radio station"?

T1A10: What is the FCC Part 97 definition of an amateur station?

  1. A station in an Amateur Radio Service consisting of the apparatus necessary for carrying on radio communications
  2. A building where Amateur Radio receivers, transmitters, and RF power amplifiers are installed
  3. Any radio station operated by a non-professional
  4. Any radio station for hobby use

The correct answer is A–A station in an Amateur Radio Service consisting of the apparatus necessary for carrying on radio communications.

(Authority: 97.3(a)(5))

More regulatory jargon here. The correct answer above probably seems a bit circular, in that it essentially says that an amateur station is defined as a station in the amateur radio service. But that's about right. A radio station, generally, is simply any collection of devices that, when used together by a sufficiently trained operator make possible communication via radio. What makes a radio station an "amateur" station, and not some other sort of radio station, is simply the intent of its owner for the station to be used in the amateur radio service, as opposed to some other service. 

Not necessarily every radio owned by an amateur radio operator, or installed at the location of an amateur radio station, will necessarily be part of that amateur's station. For example, my Android phone contains five radios, and yet it is not part of either of my amateur radio stations since currently my Android isn't directly used for radio communication within the amateur service. (Not that it can't be. There are ways I could use my Android in conjunction with other devices to form an amateur radio station. I just haven't yet.)

Also, despite the term, stations need not be stationary. The use of "station" is something of an archaism from the days when radio transmitters were huge and effectively immobile. Modern transmitters can be quite tiny and thus very portable.  Amateurs may also have as many stations as they want. Originally we had to declare to the FCC the location of our "primary" station (and hams in many countries still have to do this) and were allowed only one such "primary" station, but the FCC has long since done away with this. US hams may have as many primary fixed stations as they want (including none), and may have as many additional portable and mobile stations as they can afford. The FCC used to require that certain classes of station (auxiliary, repeater, and beacon stations) be separately licensed, but that requirement has also been done away with and any ham (other than a Novice) may operate any number of stations in one of these special operational modes with no special notice to the FCC.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Frequency coordination

T1A08: Which of the following entities recommends transmit/receive channels and other parameters for auxiliary and repeater stations?

  1. Frequency Spectrum Manager
  2. Frequency Coordinator
  3. FCC Regional Field Office
  4. International Telecommunications Union

The correct answer is B–Frequency Coordinator.

(Authority: 97.3(a)(22))

T1A09: Who selects a Frequency Coordinator?

  1. The FCC Office of Spectrum Management and Coordination Policy
  2. The local chapter of the Office of National Council of Independent Frequency Coordinators
  3. Amateur operators in a local or regional area whose stations are eligible to be auxiliary or repeater stations
  4. FCC Regional Field Office

The correct answer is C–Amateur operators in a local or regional area whose stations are eligible to be auxiliary or repeater stations.

(Authority: 97.3(a)(22))

These questions only briefly touch on an issue in part because going deeper into it would touch on areas on which the amateur radio community is in disagreement. The prior version of the Technician pool had two questions on this issue, and one of the questions set forth the arguably controversial position that coordination "reduce[d] interference and promote[d]  proper use of spectrum". I don't know why the NCVEC dumped those two questions in favor of these, but at least these questions are much more closely tied to the actual definitions in the regulations.

Frequency coordination, in general, is the recommendation of operating frequencies (transmit and receive parameters) and other parameters (such as antenna gain, antenna directionality, and selective squelch) to allow multiple repeater and auxiliary stations operating in the same general area to interoperate with a minimum of interference. In the business services frequency coordination by an FCC-recognized frequency coordinator is mandatory for all applicants, and applicants must generally pay a fee to the coordinator for that service. In the amateur service, coordination is strictly optional; however, the regulations give an advantage to repeater and auxiliary stations that do coordinate by essentially giving them priority over uncoordinated stations in an interference dispute, but only when the other interfering station is also a repeater or auxiliary station.

In principle coordination, when properly done, should reduce interference and encourage better utilization of spectrum. Unfortunately, it rarely works out that way. Frequency coordinators have a tendency to become "old boy" clubs that seek to protect the interests of their friends at the expense of those who are not their friends. My personal recommendation with respect to coordination is that one should avail oneself of the service if and when it is offered under reasonable terms, but not let it get in the way of doing something interesting or useful, especially if the coordination body is nonresponsive or unreasonably obstructive.

The other interesting thing about coordinators is that there's no top-down process for selecting one. Instead, the amateur radio operators (at least those eligible to be repeater or auxiliary station operators, which is everyone except Novices, and the FCC has proposed allowing Novices to be repeater operators, too) in an area choose, by no defined process, who their coordinator is. What this means, as far as I can tell, is if enough hams in an area get together and coordinate frequencies amongst themselves, and are recognized as having done so, then they've formed a coordination body and are acting as a "frequency coordinator". The FCC's regulation is very silent on what happens if there's a disagreement over who has jurisdiction in a particular area or if there are two competing entities both claiming to be "the" frequency coordinator for a given area. The key here is that the recognition process is bottom-up rather than top-down.

Finally, don't confuse frequency coordination with the bands established by the FCC (and consistent with ITU policy directives). FCC-set band allocations establish the limits of the frequencies on which an amateur may operate, with specific power limits and modulations. Also do not confuse frequency coordination with the voluntary band plans recommended by the ARRL (and other entities) for general use of frequencies within the limits of the FCC allocations. Frequency coordination is always a specific recommendation for a specific repeater or auxiliary station, based on the particular characteristics and expected usage of that station.

(Edited 8/18 to add T1A09.)

Remote control and intelligence: telecommand and telemetry

T1A06: What is the FCC Part 97 definition of telecommand?

  1. An instruction bulletin issued by the FCC
  2. A one-way radio transmission of measurements at a distance from the measuring instrument
  3. A one-way transmission to initiate, modify or terminate functions of a device at a distance
  4. An instruction from a VEC

The correct answer is C–A one-way transmission to initiate, modify or terminate functions of a device at a distance.

(Authority: 97.3(a)(43))

T1A07: What is the FCC Part 97 definition of telemetry?

  1. An information bulletin issued by the FCC
  2. A one-way transmission to initiate, modify or terminate functions of a device at a distance
  3. A one-way transmission of measurements at a distance from the measuring instrument
  4. An information bulletin from a VEC

The correct answer is C–A one-way transmission of measurements at a distance from the measuring instrument.

(Authority: 97.3(a)(45))

Many of the questions in the first section of the licensing exams are about regulatory jargon, and these two are no exception. I've combined these two into one post because they're basically opposite sides of the same coin. Both are examples of one-way transmissions. Also, notice that the correct answer to each question is a distractor on the other one; it is therefore important to read the question closely to see which one you got.

Telecommand is what your TV remote does: it sends commands to your TV, causing your TV to "initiate, modify, or terminate functions" based on what button you pushed. Of course, your TV remote is probably infrared (very few television remotes are RF these days), but the principle is the same. Perhaps a better example that almost always uses RF is a garage door opener.

Telemetry is using wireless communication to receive data from a measuring device without a physical connection between the measuring device and the reporting or recording device. If you have a wireless weather station, what that uses to send the gathered data back to the base station is telemetry. The same would apply to a wireless security camera; in this case the data being reported back are the images being captured by the camera.

In the context of amateur radio, telecommand is the use of amateur radio frequencies to remotely control a device. This device can be anything at all, but two specific categories stand out: remote control of model craft (often model airplanes), and remote control of space stations; these two categories receive special treatment within the rules. But nearly anything, even another amateur radio station, may be controlled by telecommand.

One of the most common telemetry activities in amateur radio today are APRS telemetry stations (often called "beacons", which is technically a misnomer, as they're not really beacons, but instead telemetry stations). APRS telemetry stations periodically transmit their location (and possibly other data, such as weather observations, environmental conditions, or anything else the station operator feels like reporting) via a packet data format which may then be received by an APRS digipeater and eventually captured by an APRS gateway and published on the Internet.

Space stations: it's all about altitude

T1A05: What is the FCC Part 97 definition of a space station?

  1. Any multi-stage satellite
  2. An Earth satellite that carries one of more amateur operators
  3. An amateur station located less than 25 km above the Earth's surface
  4. An amateur station located more than 50 km above the Earth's surface

The correct answer is D–An amateur station located more than 50 km above the Earth's surface.

(Authority: 97.3(a)(40))

Yet another question about radio regulatory jargon. The term "station" is, itself, specialized jargon in the radio services; despite the name, a "radio station" does not have to be stationary. A "space station" is, within the context of regulated radio (and thus amateur radio), simply a radio station in space. "Space" is defined as "anything more than 50 kilometers above the earth's surface".

The common notion of a space station typically requires that the station be manned; however, this thinking will again throw one off the radio definition. Space stations, in the radio sense, may be remotely operated or automatically controlled, just as any other station, and so a manned presence is not required. Nor is a space station required to be in earth orbit (although as far as I know there are presently no amateur space stations which are not in earth orbit). An especially high-flying balloon would count (although typically amateur radio ballooning activities tend to top out below the roughly 160,000 feet that defines "space"); so would a station on an object in solar orbit (such as, say, Mars) or even on a solar escape trajectory.

Amateur radio space stations have a lot of special rules that apply to them, but unless you plan on launching something into orbit you probably won't need to worry about them. The key to getting this question right on the exams is remembering two things: stations do not have to be manned, and anything over 50 kilometers is "space".

Monday, August 16, 2010

Harmful interference

T1A04: Which of the following meets the FCC definition of harmful interference?

  1. Radio transmissions that annoy users of a repeater
  2. Unwanted radio transmissions that cause costly harm to radio station apparatus
  3. That which seriously degrades, obstructs, or repeatedly interrupts a radio communication service operating in accordance with the Radio Regulations
  4. Static from lightning storms

The correct answer is C–That which seriously degrades, obstructs, or repeatedly interrupts a radio communication service operating in accordance with the Radio Regulations.

(Authority: 97.3(a)(23))

"Harmful interference" is another term from the jargon of radio regulation. Interference, broadly speaking, is anything that tends to disrupt communication, regardless of source. Not all interference is "harmful", though. Merely being "unwanted" or "annoying" is not enough to rise to the level of "harmful"; the disruption has to be significant or repeated, or must completely prevent all communication, before it rises to the level of harmful. Finally, "harmful interference" never originates from a natural source, so static from lightning storms, no matter how annoying or disruptive, doesn't count as harmful interference.

All radio licensees, including amateurs, are prohibited from causing harmful interference with any other station. Stations who are suffering from harmful interference are entitled to relief from that interference, which means that the station causing the harmful interference can be made to stop, by force if necessary, by the governing administration that has authority over that station.

Harmful interference doesn't have to be intentional, although it often is. Jamming (that is, transmitting on top of other transmissions in order to block them) is an especially pernicious form of harmful interference. But that's not the only form of harmful interference; far more common are things like spurious emissions caused by malfunctions or maladjusted transmitters, leakage from cable television systems, and unwanted noise from defective household electronics like computers or televisions. All of these, if severe enough, count as harmful interference that can result in enforcement actions from the FCC.

In practice the FCC's effort to abate harmful interference is proportional to what the licensee suffering the interference pays in licensing fees for their license; since amateurs pay nothing for their licenses the FCC doesn't work terribly hard to resolve interference complaints. Basically that means we have to investigate the circumstances ourselves and wrap the whole thing up nice and pretty so all they have to do is some quick work to verify the complaint before they'll act. Fortunately the ARRL is actually pretty good at this; one of the few things they do do well.

This particular question is one that was improved in this version of the question pool; in the 2006 question pool the question misstated the definition of "harmful interference", leading me to complain about it when I blogged about it about a year ago.

Part 97 of how many?

T1A03: Which part of the FCC rules contains the rules and regulations governing the Amateur Radio Service?

  1. Part 73
  2. Part 95
  3. Part 90
  4. Part 97

The correct answer is D–Part 97.

The FCC, as I mentioned in the previous post, regulates all nonfederal use of radio for communication in the United States. In the course of doing this it issues lots and lots of regulations. These are gathered together (along with selected regulations from certain other agencies) in Title 47 of the Code of Federal Regulations. For bureaucratic reasons, the regulations are divided into numbered "parts"; the FCC is allotted parts 0 through 199. The first twenty parts (0-19) are for administrative and general rules that apply to the FCC and its licensees generally. The remaining parts, 20 through 101, are rules for different types of licensed radio uses, or "services", as they are known in radio regulatory jargon.

The four answers the NCVEC offers for this question are therefore all rules for specific radio services. Part 73 contains the rules for the broadcast media services, including AM and FM radio, television, and the international broadcast service (shortwave). Part 90 contains all the rules for what is known as the "private land mobile" service; this rather large division includes business radio and public safety radio (such as police and fire services). Part 95 covers the "personal radio" services such as CB and GMRS. And, finally, Part 97, the correct answer, covers the amateur radio service. It's generally a good idea for hams to have a copy (at least in electronic form) of Part 97 simply because the FCC expects us to be aware of the rules of the service.

The astute reader will already have noticed that when I quote the questions in these posts, there is often an "authority" section at the bottom of the question (although not in this post, because the NCVEC didn't provide an authority for this question). These are references, provided by the NCVEC, to the portion of the FCC regulations that the question under discussion is testing. These references are hotlinked to the Government Printing Office's Electronic Code of Federal Regulations Service, which is updated daily and is therefore the most up-to-date and official source for these documents (even more so than the FCC itself). There are other sources for Part 97 out there, but if you use a source other than the GPO, please ensure that the source you use is up-to-date; the FCC has amended Part 97 twice already this year alone.

What does the FCC have to do with amateur radio?

T1A02: What agency regulates and enforces the rules for the Amateur Radio Service in the United States?

  1. FEMA
  2. The ITU
  3. The FCC
  4. Homeland Security

The correct answer is C–The FCC.

(Authority: 97.1)

This is another question that's in the question pool to ensure that aspiring licensees are educated about something that is very important to know: that amateur radio, in the United States, at least, is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, or FCC, and not by any other entity.

The FCC has been charged since its creation in 1934 with the regulation of all uses of radio frequency energy for communication within the terrority of the United States, its coastal waters, and ships at sea sailing under the flag of the United States, except for use by instrumentalities of the federal government itself (over which the FCC has no jurisdiction). Amateur radio falls within this scope, and so amateur radio is regulated by, and the rules for amateur radio written and enforced by, the FCC. 

Two of the other three entities listed are other federal agencies that have no authority over radio: FEMA and Homeland Security. Hams have no specific duties, functions, or responsibilities with respect to either FEMA or Homeland Security. The third entity offered as a distractor is the ITU, or International Telecommunication Union. The ITU, unlike the others, is not a federal agency; it is instead an agency of the United Nations, formed originally in 1865 as the International Telegraph Union in 1865 by a multilateral treaty amongst 20 nations. The United States is a charter member of the ITU and, as a member nation, agrees to abide by the regulations the ITU sets forth regarding radio. However, while the FCC will only rarely write regulations that are inconsistent with those issued by the ITU, it remains the case that it's the FCC regulations, and not the ITU regulations, that apply to amateur radio in the United States. Which is just as well, because the FCC regulations anyone can get for free from the US Government Printing Office, while the ITU regulations are not available without the payment of a fee to the ITU, or more accurately the ITU's publisher.

The FCC isn't the only entity that a ham has to care about. Hams must also follow FAA regulations (when erecting towers over a certain height, as set forth in Part 17). Hams must also be aware of and follow certain regulations of the National Technology and Information Agency (NTIA), issued as part of the latter's authority to coordinate the use of radio by the federal government. Several amateur bands are shared with federal users (including the military) and amateurs must be aware of the NTIA's regulation of those shared bands and observe any restrictions placed by NTIA in the use of those bands. Finally, while FCC regulation preempts state and local regulation of radio with respect to radio frequency interference and radio frequency exposure safety, state and local authorities may still enforce "reasonable" regulations on antenna structures for the purpose of electrical and mechanical safety and other "legitimate" purposes.

In practice, the FCC governs with a relatively light hand. Amateur radio is a tiny tiny piece of the FCC's pie. Amateur radio licensing generates very little revenue for the FCC (as the licenses are free), and they put relatively limited resources into the amateur radio area. In general the FCC expects us to take care of ourselves. This is a mixed blessing: on one hand it means that the FCC isn't something we generally have to deal with much; on the other hand, when there is a problem, getting the FCC to act on it can be difficult. It's not clear to me that a heavier hand would be better for amateur radio, though, and the other alternative (no amateur radio at all) is clearly worse.

Who Is Amateur Radio For?

This is the first post in what is likely to be a long series that discuss the material on the Amateur Radio licensing examinations. Each post will typically focus on one question from the question pools; there are thousands of these questions so this will probably go on for some time. Some of this material will likely be repetitive with prior posts in this blog, but I will try to make it interesting nonetheless.

T1A01: For whom is the Amateur Radio Service intended?

  1. Persons who have messages to broadcast to the public
  2. Persons who need communications for the activities of their immediate family members, relatives and friends
  3. Persons who need two-way communications for personal reasons
  4. Persons who are interested in radio technique solely with a personal aim and without pecuniary interest

The correct answer is D–Persons who are interested in radio technique solely with a personal aim and without pecuniary interest.

(Authority: 97.3(a)(4))

This question's presence in the Technician pool acts to ensure that people who are setting out to become hams will understand both what amateur radio is and also what it is not. Amateur radio is not (as is widely believed, if you believe the random noise I hear on Twitter and Backtype) a means by which one can broadcast one's opinions to myriads of rapt listeners. Nor is it intended as a personal communication service (either with your friends and family, or as a general chat service); people looking to do that should consider whether one of the Personal Radio services, or even a cell phone, would better serve their needs. Amateur radio is intended to allow those who have an interest in radio for its own sake a means to explore and develop their interest. If you are hoping to accomplish something useful, and you're just considering using radio as a means to do that, amateur radio may not be what you're looking for. Especially if the thing you're hoping to accomplish involves making money for yourself or someone else: that's specifically prohibited.

As it happens, the foregoing notwithstanding, there's quite a lot of use of amateur frequencies for what amounts to the broadcasting of opinion (as anyone who has listened to 75 meter phone, or to far too many VHF repeaters, can attest), and it's certainly common to see amateur radio used for personal communication between family members, or for general chatting (the latter is often called "ragchewing"). It's just that these are not part of the principle purposes of the amateur radio service, and the FCC offers other services which are explicitly intended for these purposes.

Fundamentally, if you think the whole concept of flinging signals through the air and catching them halfway across the world (or just halfway down the street) is really awesome and want to play with this more, and are willing to take quite a bit of time to learn some pretty complicated stuff, then ham radio is for you. If you just want to talk to people halfway around the world (or, again, halfway down the street), well, may I suggest Twitter? It's a lot easier to get on Twitter than it is to get a ham radio license, after all, and you don't have to buy nearly as much equipment. Fundamentally, ham radio is a geek thing; if you don't have the knack, then it might well not be for you.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Electrocution may be hazardous to your health

The first group of new questions from the 2010 Technician pool I'm covering are from subelement T0, which covers safety issues.  The NCVEC has been increasing the amount of safety-related content on the tests in recent years, and the new pool contains 13 new questions in this subelement.  The first of these is T0A02: "How does current flowing through the body cause a health hazard?"  I would think that most people understand that being electrocuted is bad for them, and generally something to be avoided.  However, for whatever reason, the NCVEC has decided that it's at least somewhat important for new hams to be prepared to demonstrate that they understand just why electrocution is bad for you. 

There are three main ways that electric currents within the body are hazardous.  First, any current flowing through any medium which is not a perfect conductor (which is to say, anything whatsoever) generates heat (sometimes called Joule heating).  The body's internal resistance is modest, typically between 300 and 1000 ohms; however, the skin resistance can be much higher, in the 10,000 to 100,000 ohm range depending on conditions.  A current passing through the body will heat and eventually burn tissue, preferentially at points of higher resistance; this will lead initially to burns on the skin and then later (as the skin blisters and its resistance lowers), to burns deeper within the body.  Second, many functions of cells depend on electrical charges, and the moving about of charged ions, to accomplish the purpose of the cells; electrical currents passing through these cells will tend to disrupt these electrical functions.  At very low currents (1 milliamp or less) this manifests itself as a tingling sensation.  At higher currents it will manifest as pain.  Sufficiently high currents (50 to 70 milliamps) may cause the third major effect: involuntary muscle contractions.  At even higher currents, 500 milliamps or more, the muscle of the heart can be disrupted leading to heart fibrillation, cardiac arrest, and death.

This particular question appears in the pool with an "All of the above" option.  Any experienced test-taker knows that "all of the above" is often the correct answer to any question that has such an option, and this question is no exception to that rule.  In any case, what really matters is that hams must understand that electrical voltages, even relatively low ones, are potentially dangerous, and must take precautions to avoid finding out about these effects first-hand.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

New Technician Pool, coming soon to a VE team near you

The NCVEC announced a new Technician pool back in February; it's now June and that new pool goes into effect July 1.  I've been blogging about the old Technician pool (an activity which, of late, I have been kinda lax at), and I've decided to abandon that effort in favor of blogging about the new pool, on the grounds that that might be more useful.

The new pool has 396 questions, 5 more than the old one; there are 67 questions carried across unchanged, 142 carried across with some changes (either minor or, in some cases, major), and 187 questions that are entirely new.  182 questions were dropped.  I would say that this new pool is somewhat harder than the old one; the new pool has significantly more electronics on it as well as content related to ionospheric propagation and SSB and CW operations (reflecting the fact that all Technicians now get limited HF privileges, not just those few who pass a code test).  There's even a few basic antenna theory questions.  Overall I think this is a better pool, in that it will force candidates to learn more of what they should know as beginning amateur radio operators.

Future posts will discuss specific topics that are new or newly handled on the new pool.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Don't drive in Northlake this weekend

I guess Northlake is short on money or something: I just got a $50 "seatbelt violation" (given to me by NLPD Officer Carpenter, badge #128) for driving while wearing a seatbelt. Yes, you heard me. For driving while wearing a seatbelt.

The incident occurred near the intersection of Fullerton and Roy, around 11:15 am today. This is a common place for Northlake to set speed traps, and I know this, so I was being careful to watch my speed through here. I noticed the cop (in his tiny little Northlake compact cop car, they don't drive Crown Vics there) as I drove by, and even nodded to him. I'm driving my GMC Sierra, which means I'm probably 4 feet above his eye level: there is no way he can tell if I'm wearing my seat belt or not. I always wear my seatbelt. Always. No exceptions.

After I clear the intersection he lights up and chases me down a half block down the road. I pull over, of course, and go to get the insurance card out of the glove box while waiting for him to walk up. In order to do this, of course, I have to take off my seat belt: the glovebox on a Sierra is a LONG reach and it's really hard to do without removing the seat belt, so when he gets to me I have already taken my seat belt off. He gets to me and tells me that he pulled me over for not wearing a seat belt. I tell him that that's ridiculous, and he gets all hot and huffy at me (including the classic "You got a problem with that?" line that dumbass powerfreak cops use all the time). He takes a brief look at my license and insurance (probably just to verify that I don't live in Northlake: I don't, and my license still has my Niles address on it) and decides at that point that he's going to write me a citation.

The fine is $50, and I'm not going to fight it because the only way I can win is to hope that Officer Carpenter doesn't show up. Basically this is the Northlake Mafia, tagging me for $50 for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I actually figure I'm better off having taken my seat belt off before he got up there; otherwise he'd have to come up with some other bogus violation to charge me with that would have cost me more and maybe even put points on my license. But this certainly is a huge discouragement for me to do any business in Northlake, especially this weekend.

Quick note to Mayor Jeffrey Sherwin: antagonizing your neighbors is not a good business practice. I can easily take my business in Northlake to Melrose Park, Stone Park, or Franklin Park.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Station identification

Anyone who has listened to broadcast radio knows at least a little about station identification requirements; I certainly remember listening to the Indy 500 coverage back in my youth (I grew up in Indianapolis, so we were blacked out for TV coverage and could only listen to the race on the radio) and remember well the periodic interruption of the coverage with "We now pause 15 seconds for station identification" followed by WIBC's identification as the network flagship station.  The general rule is that radio stations must, from time to time, transmit identification so that listeners will know who is transmitting.  The main regulatory reason for this is so that a station that is suffering harmful interference from another station can, merely by listening long enough, identify who that station is and seek relief appropriately, or determine that they are not entitled to relief.  Amateur radio stations are no exception to this general rule, although the specific requirements are different than for the broadcast services.

The general rule for identification in the amateur radio service in the United States (§97.119) is that station identification is required at the end of a transmission or series of transmissions, and at least once every ten minutes during a transmission or series of transmissions which lasts longer than ten minutes.  Note that there is no requirement to identify at the start of a series of transmissions, and identification at the start of a series of transmissions is insufficient to meet the requirements of the rule.  In general, the best way to remain in compliance with the rules is to ensure that you always end out your transmission with your identification. 

In general, transmissions which do not include identification (known as "unidentified communications or signals") are prohibited, with two very specific exceptions.  First, stations operating more than 50 kilometers above the earth's surface ("space stations") are not required to identify under any circumstance.  Second, stations being used solely to control a model craft (via telecommand) are not required to identify provided that the transmitter being used has a label affixed to it identifying the licensee's call sign, name, and address, and that the transmitter's power does not exceed one watt.  Note that while telecommand signals sent to a space station are permitted to be encrypted, such transmissions are not exempt from identification.  The only type of transmission which is both exempt from identification and permitted to be encrypted is telecommand of a model craft under §97.218.

The identification itself must be a call sign.  In general, it'll be the call sign of the operator, but there are several situations in which it can be a different call sign.  In general, when operating someone else's station you are supposed to use their call sign, not your own call sign.  When operating a station owned by, or being operated on behalf of, a club, the operator should identify using the club's call sign.  Also, a station which is operating within the scope of a "special event" may identify using the temporarily assigned special event call sign in lieu of his or her own call sign.  In all of these cases, the operator must have the permission of the station owner, the club's trustee or the special event coordinator (respectively) in order to use the call sign.  Furthermore, when using a temporarily-issued special event call sign the operator must identify with his or her own call sign at least once in every hour; however, this is not required when using someone else's permanently-issued station or club call sign. 

The rules stipulate that station identifications must be transmitted in one of four formats: Morse code, phone (in English), RTTY, or a video format as specified in §73.682(a) (which is part of the FCC's standards for broadcast video); the latter two options apply only if the transmission being identified was in a digital mode or video mode, respectively.  In practice, very few stations transmitting digital modes other than RTTY identify in RTTY, identifying instead in the same mode as the transmission, and the FCC has yet to take action against any station for failing to identify, but that's what the rules require.  (The regulations relating to digital modes are rather out of date in places, and actual practice is often rather at odds with the regulations, but nobody seems to care a whole lot.)

There's a lot of common myths in the amateur community relating to identification.  A common one that is seen with older VHF ragchewers is the practice of identifying in a roundtable with "K9XYZ and the group, this is W9ZXY", and some hams seem to think that this practice is mandatory.  The regulations never mandate transmitting the call sign of any station other than that the station transmitting.  It is not necessary (in regulation, at least) to identify the intended recipient of the transmission.  This particular practice seems to have arisen from an overly zealous interpretation of the regulations relating to broadcasting; someone decided that all communications had to involve exactly two stations, and that identifying in this manner would somehow satisfy this regulation.  The only requirements for two (or more) stations who are communicating with one another is that each station must end its final transmission in the exchange with its own call sign, and each station must identify with its own call sign at least once every ten minutes during the sequence of communications.

There's a few situations in which one is required to add indicators either before or after one's call sign, when identifying.  If you're operating someone else's station and you are exceeding the privileges alloted to the licensee of that station, you are required to identify by using the station owner's call sign followed by your own call sign, to explain why that station is entitled to operate in those frequencies or modes.  There's also three special suffix indicators (/KT, /AG, and /AE) used to indicate that the station operator has recently upgraded and is using the privileges gained thereby pending the processing of the upgrade by the FCC.  These are pretty rare now, though, given the speed with which the FCC processes upgrades these days.  Also, when operating in the United States pursuant to a reciprocity grant, the alien operator is required to prefix his or her own (non-US) call sign with a call sign prefix identifying the location of the station.  Perversely, for Canadians this goes after, not before, the call sign.  (The same rule applies for a US licensee operating in another country, except, of course, in reverse.)  Licensees may add additional voluntary designations either before or after their call sign if they so choose, as long as such designations do not conflict with any of the official ones.  It's quite common to see "/R" added to repeater station identifications, for example, even though this is (no longer) required by the rules, and many older hams will reflexively add "mobile" to their identification when operating mobile because that used to be required.  The requirement of not conflicting with official designations effectively eliminates most voluntary prefix options because nearly every possible code is a valid national prefix and would therefore be in conflict.  (Out of 1296 possible two-character codes, 1034 are currently assigned.)  However, voluntary suffix options are pretty much wide open.

Speaking of myths regarding identification, the NCVEC perpetuates the myth that the "KT", "AG", and "AE" suffixes are initialisms in question T2B11, which tests whether you know that "AG" supposedly means "Authorized General".  The regulations do not specify the use of "Authorized General" when identifying in English when operating pursuant to a CSCE granting General privileges; they specify the specific use of the suffix "AG", which in phone would be "Alpha Golf".  The reason "KT" is used for Technicians instead of "AT" (which would make more sense) is because "AT" is not a call sign prefix available to the FCC (it's allocated to India) and the FCC, when it selected those suffixes, wished to avoid conflict with other possible uses.  "Authorized General" is essentially a backronym from the fundamentally meaningless code.  (T2B11 is another example of a bad question; fortunately, this one, like the other bad question I wrote about a while ago, appears to have been dropped from the 2010 version of the pool.)

This post has been brought to you by pool questions T2A05, T2B01, T2B02, T2B03, T2B04, T2B05, T2B06, T2B07, T2B08, T2B09, T2B10, and T2B11.  Section references above are to Title 47 of the Code of Federal Regulations, browsable via the GPO Access eCFR service.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Mars is greener than you might think

A while back I was watching some TV show, quite likely a documentary of some sort, that talked about the American effort to land a man on the moon in the 1960s, and more specifically how that goal became a major driver in the American economy during the 1960s.  That concentration of effort is no doubt a huge part of why America was the global leader in technological innovation up to the turn of the century.  The Apollo program wasn't all that expensive.  The government spent, over ten years, between $20 and $25 billion in 1969 dollars (around $150 billion in today's dollars) on the Apollo program, and the government recovered all of that within less than a decade due to increased tax revenues related to the subsequent commercial exploitation of the technologies developed by the space program.

It does rather seem that a major space mission is a good economic driver as well as a very potent way to build national pride in a nondestructive way (we get to win without anyone else really losing).  The problem is that we've already been to the moon; doing it again isn't very interesting unless we establish a permanent base these.  The next obvious targets are Mars and Venus; Venus is closer but the surface is too hot for even a mechanized lander to last long, and a manned mission would have no chance of setting foot on Venusian soil with present materials technologies.  So that leaves Mars as the obvious choice for the next place to send a manned mission, and so when this topic comes up (as it did recently in connection with the fortieth anniversary of Apollo 11) that's what is usually proposed.

There are two main difficulties in a mission to Mars: getting there, and getting back.  And it's not the astrophysics that are difficult: we know how to do that by now.  It's the biosphere management required to keep some number of humans alive (that is provided with air, water, and food) for the entirety of that trip, which will take  months.  The missions to the moon were short, only a couple of days, and it was practical for the astronauts to take their consumable supplies with them and to jettison their waste as they went.  A Mars mission has no such option; if they tried to pack a year's worth of air, food, and water in the ship it would take years just to boost it all into earth orbit for assembly.  To have any hope of being launched in a reasonable time, a Mars mission will have to construct a closed biosphere capable of sustaining the crew, with only sunlight as an external input, for the entirety of its mission; they will have to recycle virtually everything on board and very carefully manage their limited resources. 

Now, doesn't that sound like it should be right up the Green Party's alley?  The need for the technologies required to build a self-sustained closed biosphere capable of supporting a crew of several humans for a year would naturally drive research into all sorts of areas that have immediate and obvious application to waste management and reprocessing, resource recovery, and other aspects of environment management that are just the thing for advancing technologies in ways to pollute our own planet less and place fewer demands on its limited natural resources.  I would think that Greens would be the loudest advocates for a manned mission to Mars because of this, yet the word "Mars" does not even appear in their 2004 platform statement, and in fact the Greens appear to oppose manned exploration of space due to the "high cost and risk for human life".  I suppose they haven't really thought about this that much.

It seems clear to me that a Mars mission could lead to a technological Renaissance in the life sciences the way that the Apollo missions did in the material sciences and in electronics, with huge benefits to all mankind and especially to whatever nation does it first.  But we won't know unless we try.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Odd things you find while looking for work

Came across a job posting today on sologig for a SharePoint Analyst that had one of the oddest job requirements I've seen yet.  Apparently this employer believes that a qualified candidate will be able to "[p]repare strategic business requirements, uses accepted concepts, standards, SDLC methodologies, and toilets".

Now, I would think that applicants for most jobs in the United States would generally be expected to be toilet-trained, and in any case not being toilet-trained would probably fall within the scope of a protected disability under the ADA.  Maybe one of the duties includes maintaining the programmer's restroom.

Original listing here; saved for posterity here for when the posting expires or is "corrected".

Monday, January 18, 2010

More things you can't do on amateur radio

I wrote a while back about some of the things you cannot do on amateur radio.  Here's some more of them.

First of all, amateurs are forbidden from broadcasting: that is, amateurs are prohibited from making transmissions of content transmitted with the intention that it be heard by the general public, either directly or indirectly.  That doesn't mean that hams aren't allowed to make one-way transmissions, it just means that an amateur may not use his or her amateur station, in general, to talk to people who aren't also amateurs.  It's important to understand that certain one-way transmissions such as a CQ call, QST bulletin, or telemetry transmission are not "broadcasts" because they are not intended to be heard by the general public, but instead by "all amateurs" or "amateurs with an interest in this communication".  The key to the definition of "broadcasting", which is entirely prohibited to the amateur service, is that the communications must be intended to be received by the general public.  Obviously this regulation is to prevent amateur stations (with their zero license fee) from competing with the broadcast service.  If your interest in radio is to be a talk radio star, then amateur radio might not be you, and you should consider looking elsewhere.

Similarly, the transmission of music is also prohibited (with one exception: music incidental to an authorized retransmission of communications from the Space Shuttle is permitted).  However, there is reportedly a ruling that one ham singing "Happy Birthday" on the air to another ham does not count as the "transmission of music", presumably because most hams seem to be unable to sing.  Again, this is a noncompete regulation; if you want to transmit music the FCC wants you to use the broadcast service or a low power service to accomplish your purpose, not amateur radio.  If your interest in radio is to be an on-air DJ, again, amateur radio might not be for you, and you should consider looking elsewhere.

The use of codes, ciphers, encryption, or any other method for concealing meaning is prohibited, with two exceptions that are very similar in nature.  A station may use encrypted transmissions for the telecommand of an amateur space station (that is, an amateur station more than 50 kilometers above the earth's service; typically, a satellite, either manned or unmanned), or for the remote control of a model craft (such as a model airplane, boat, or car).  In the satellite station case, the FCC mandates that all satellite stations be able to be "remote killed" from the ground, and in any case a malicious operator could easily pervert a satellite's operation by tweaking its control parameters to the point that it could not be recovered.  Given the high expense of putting satellites in orbit, and the extreme difficulty in servicing them once they're there, the FCC lets us protect those stations in this way.  The same permission is granted for remote control craft for much the same reason; also, telecommand stations for remote control of model craft are subject to power limitations (one watt) that make it unlikely that the remote control transmissions will create difficulties for other stations, and to physical identification requirements that will allow identification of the station operator in the unlikely event that there is unacceptable interference.

Amateurs may not send "false or deceptive signals".  This mainly means that amateurs may not use fictitious identification to try to appear to be someone they are not, or to try to get someone else in trouble.  It also means that, e.g., false calls of distress are bad (but we've already covered that). 

Amateurs may not use indecent or obscene language on the air.  This one is probably one of the most violated rules on the bands, sad to say: there's quite a lot of indecent and no small quantity of obscene language on the HF bands (75 meters is especially notorious for this) as well as on VHF and UHF repeaters in many areas.  What exactly is meant by "indecent" and "obscene" is complicated, and it's probably best to play on the safe side here, not so much for the sake of not violating the rules, but simply out of respect for not only your fellow amateurs (who may well be very much not like you) but also anyone else who might be listening in.  Remember that kids, and even entire classrooms, listen to this stuff sometimes, and your name and address are published by the FCC so (unless you've been making "false or deceptive signals") anyone who does hear you swearing on the air will be able to find out exactly where you live.  And that might prove to be embarrassing. 

This post has been brought to you by pool questions T2A01, T2A02, T2A03, T2A04, T2A06, T2A07, and T2A08.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Responsibility of the Amateur Radio Operator

As the casual reader of this blog has no doubt noted, I have been blogging about the question pools used for the amateur radio examinations in the United States, focusing (so far) on the Technician exam.  The NCVEC just announced the 2010 edition of that pool, and I'm going to have to take a look at it soon and comment on it the way I did on the 2008 Extra pool when it was released.  However, I want to grouse about a particular question on the old pool first, and I'm going to continue to blog about the old pool for now because that's what people will be testing against until July, at least.

Question T1D08 asks: "What is your responsibility as a station licensee?" and gives (like all other questions on these tests) four choices.  Now, of course, amateurs have many responsibilities as station licensees, many (but not all) of which are set out explicitly in the various regulations in Part 97 and elsewhere in Title 47 of the Code of Federal Regulations.  Hams are, obviously, required to follow those regulations; this is so blindingly obvious that it almost should go without saying.  Which is, I suppose, why the correct answer to this question is "Your station must be operated in accordance with the FCC rules".  There is really no excuse for getting this one wrong.

It is worth noting, however, that the other three options for this question are not only wrong, but relatively obviously wrong.  "You must allow another amateur to operate your station upon request" is nearly the exact opposite of the real rule, which is that you are never required to let anyone use your station and are responsible for any transmissions by anyone you do let use it.  "You must be present whenever the station is operated" is simply not true; there are many situations in which you may be absent from the station or its control point while the station is being operate.  And the third, "You must notify the FCC if another amateur acts as the control operator", is dismissable on the grounds that the FCC is certainly not interested in getting constant such reports from amateurs.

I question the merit of questions like this one: they're so easy that anyone with even mediocre test-taking skills can get the answer without knowing anything more about amateur radio than the fact that it's regulated by the FCC.  One small bright spot on this: it appears that this question has been dropped from the 2010 pool, although I won't know that for sure until I do the full match-up and comparison.

This post has been brought to you by pool question T1D08.