29 September 2022
20 September 2022
Or should this be titled Groundhog Day?
Hurricane Fiona tracked just offshore of Puerto Rico on Sunday, and wiped out virtually all power on the island and severely damaged other infrastructure. This is almost five years to the day that Hurricane Maria did her best to wipe Puerto Rico completely off the map.
There's a question and an observation here. First the question. Post Maria, the federal government pumped billions of dollars into Puerto Rico to help rebuild and harden the infrastructure. My question now is, what failed, and why? What did those billions buy? It certainly doesn't look like it bought any effective infrastructure improvements. I can understand some of the island going dark, or even a lot of the island going dark, but to have the entire island go dark should be raising red flags regarding infrastructure investment and how the money was spent. My suspicion is that, given the current political climate, those questions will remain unasked.
Now the observation. I've said this repeatedly, I don't care how good your infrastructure is, Mother Nature will have her way. Think about it - the entire island is without power. No phone, no internet, no lights, no clean water, nothing. Yesterday you were watching Game of Thrones and surfing the internet, today you're trying to figure out if your relatives in the village on the other side of the ridgeline are still alive. A total service outage can, and at some point will, happen.
Are you ready?
21 August 2022
I've been a ham since 1995 (original call KC5YNP). I'm very serious about the hobby, particularly the hardware side, and I've been blessed with the opportunity to test a wide variety of gear. It takes a lot to impress me, especially first impressions. I don't do 'fanboy' reviews - there's plenty of that crap out on YouTube. I'll tell you how I really feel about a piece of gear only after I've used and tested it over a long period of time. I also evaluate hardware within its original design envelope - how good was it when it was first released, not how well it works today. Here's an example - I'm frequently surprised by folks who buy a newly manufactured Yaesu FT-818 and then bitch about how it's a poor performer because it's not an SDR, or has poor filter options. Well duhhh. It's a 23 year old design! You have to evaluate hardware in the framework of its original design and when it was released to market. In its day the FT-817 (predecessor to the 818) was a groundbreaking little rig (and yes, it's on my list).
So how do I evaluate? To be honest, most of my criteria are subjective. But in general:
- A radio must be well built - it must be physically rugged and able to provide years of service within its intended use case. What this generally means is that things like HTs need to be more physically rugged than an HF rig designed to sit on a desk
- Whatever features a radio offers must be well implemented. For example, if an HT is 2 meters only, that's OK, but the features in the radio - thinks like navigating menus, entering frequencies directly into the VFO, etc. - must be well implemented and easy to figure out. I shouldn't have to turn to a manual to figure out what should be easy and obvious
- Manufacturer specific features need to really work, and work well, and add value to the overall package. For example, a well known (and respected) manufacturer adds a lot of proprietary features to their radios that only work with other radios of the same brand. Things like group calling, group alerts, etc (experienced readers will figure out what manufacturer I'm talking about). I view these as cute parlor tricks that have little value in the real world. If adding these features to the radio incurs additional retail cost, or squeezes out other more useful features then that's a no-go
- Value for money. A radio needs to offer good value for money. I have a lot more respect for a manufacturer that leaves out some bells and whistles to keep the cost down, as long as the overall package performs well.
Why I like it: for all the reasons I list above - it's rugged (although not waterproof like the VX-6), has a well implemented feature set, is easy to manage thanks to the full keypad (backlit, by the way), has great audio, and has real and easy to manipulate knobs for things like volume, squelch and channel selection.
Why I like it: Extremely versatile, well built, very well supported by third party software and accessory manufacturers, easy to operate and figure out.
16 August 2022
About half the time I'm operating on HF I'm wearing headphones. Usually it's because I'm participating in a formal net - MARS or SHARES - and I need to be able to hear and acknowledge all participants, even under tough propagation conditions. This means headphones.
Like so many old-timers in Amateur Radio I've tried a huge variety of brands and models of headphones. All were good in some form or fashion. Some were really good - Heil headphone audio has always been universally good. I've owned some Bose and Sony 'studio reference' (whatever that means) headphones that were quite good, but they are designed more for listening to music than the spoken voice; too much bass and too wide of a response that can actually make voice communications sound 'muddy' to my ears. Great for listening to Beyoncé's latest over-produced off-key extravaganza, not so good for trying to dig callsigns out of the S7 noise floor.
Some of the best headphones I've used are not headphones at all. These are C. Crane earbuds. Crane builds them to emphasize voice communications, and they work great. They are my go-to 'headphones' for use with my radios during portable operations. The other good thing about Crane's earbuds is that they are cheap - about $20 a set. This means I can buy them in bulk so when my dog chews up a set I've got another sitting in the drawer ready to go.
But in my shack, when operating on HF, my long-time go-to headset is the classic Kenwood HS-5.
Kenwood has been making these headphones probably longer than I've been a ham, and you can't get more old school; an on-ear design, vinyl covered dual spring-steel headband, lots of cloth sleeved wiring, and a long obsolete 1/4" single ring audio plug. Plop these on your head and your hand starts instinctively reaching for a CW straight key. They are that old school.
But the Kenwood HS-5 'cans' (an old time term for headphones) do two things better than most. First, they fit well. They may be a bit heavier than modern all-plastic headsets, but they are very comfortable on my oversized noggin. They balance well and you simply don't notice the weight. But most important, they sound great! Easily as good as any Heil product I've used, and perhaps a bit better. Kenwood set the response on these headphones to emphasize the spoken voice (vs. a broader response for 'studio' headsets). I hear voices on HF better with these 'phones than most others.
Some folks complain about the 1/4" plug, and I guess that's a valid gripe, but there's easy fixes out there. You can buy a 1/4"-to-1/8" adapter on Amazon, or you can simply clip off the 1/4" plug and solder on a 1/8" plug. But I don't want Kenwood tinkering with the design to 'improve' them. There's no updating necessary. These headphones are a wonderful homage to the days of classic ham radio, when you had things like external VFOs and tube finals, and they still work great in today's modern SDR world.
06 August 2022
We're in what I'll call the 'post-Field Day, mid-summer ham radio doldrums', and for weeks now there's not been much ham radio stuff to report on. Down here in Gawga the weather has been hot, mostly dry, and buggy. Real buggy. So buggy that it's limited my outdoor operating activities. Then the XYL and I contracted COVID. While it didn't feel much worse than a mild cold, it did knock us back for almost two weeks, and we're still dealing with some lingering symptoms like congestion and coughing. Parallel to that, we launched on a major landscaping project to finally make our backyard habitable. What was supposed to be a little over a week job turned into a month-plus slog as the landscaper dealt with weather, material shortages and other demands on his time (he's a one-man show, so he works slow). Then a visit to the orthopedist for some nagging back issues threw me for a loop. What I hoped would be some simple muscle pain has turned out to be scoliosis, arthritis and a pinched nerve. That led to a canceled camping trip that we had both been looking forward to.
|Slow progress, but progress|
So on to sunnier topics...
Where I work (aka 'The World's Busiest Airport') senior management made a long overdue decision to go with a new maintenance management system. Part of this adoption will require provisioning the field crews with tablets that they'll use to respond to work orders and do inspections. The tablet of choice, and the one we steered them to, is the iPad. The software developer's apps just seem to work better on iOS devices. I'm not an Apple guy, but the XYL is. In fact, she's got a stack of old iPads sitting in a closet. Most of them were still perfectly serviceable, so I thought I'd grab one or two of the newest, update them, and use them to test and train on the new software. No such luck. The app requires at least iOS 15. The most current OS that could be loaded on any of these old iPads was iOS 14.x. The app wouldn't run. Damn. I needed to replicate exactly what the field crews were seeing on their devices so I could help train and troubleshoot, so an Android tablet wouldn't do. I needed an iPad, and I needed one fast. Double damn. After a few days of hunting around for the best deal, I settled on a new iPad Air. I found I could buy one on-line from the Army and Air Force Exchange System (AAFES) - one of the benefits of being an Army retiree - at a $200 discount and no sales tax.
Of course - of course! - the iPad got ham radio apps loaded on it. In fact, this is what the XYL suspected I really wanted it for. No honey, it's not. I had better uses for that money, plus I'm an Android and Windows guy (I love my Surface Pro). But I figure that as long as I've got the thing, why not try out some ham radio apps. My good friend Joe, KI4ASK, a long time Mac and iOS addict/partisan/evangelist, has been singing the praises of a new iOS app for the Icom IC-705 (and IC-7610 and 9700) called SDR-Control for iOS. The app is written by Marcus Roskosch, who apparently designed the software interface for Flex radios, and a number of other highly regarded applications. I guess he knows what he's doing. I'm still in the learning stages with this app, but I have to agree with Joe, it's slick. While I can't say I'll ever use it for La-Z-Boy QSOs, I was sitting in said chair a few nights ago and just doing some SWL scanning while connected to my IC-705 via wi-fi . Lots of fun. I may have more on this at a later date, but for now I'll let Josh at Ham Radio Crash Course give you the rundown:
I make no secret of the fact that I'm a Chameleon Antenna fanboy. What they make works, is rugged as hell, is well documented, and the company stands behind their products. A man has to have a vice, and since I don't smoke or drink (much), I decided my vice will be Chameleon antennas. Last year Chameleon came out with their Tactical Delta Loop (TDL) and it caught my interest. The TDL was an immediate hit and Chameleon has had trouble keeping it in stock, but recently I found that the Atlanta HRO store had one available, so I grabbed it. I've used Chameleon's vertical antenna systems for years, but I was looking for a portable system that was quick to set up, didn't require ground radials, had more gain than a vertical, and could be rotated to take advantage of the improved gain. The TDL is an odd looking contraption - two 17' telescoping whip antennas set in a 'V' configuration (think giant TV rabbit ears) with a section of wire running between them. The antenna is fed at the base using one of Chameleon's standard matching transformers. The antenna kit comes with a ground spike to support it, but I've chosen to use my surveyor tripod, which gets the whole antenna setup further off the ground (improving the take-off angle a bit) and makes it easier to rotate. I've only tested it a few times, and only with my Elecraft KX2, but it seems to work quite well on 10 - 40 meters. The tuner in the KX2 easily finds matches on those bands, and can usually find a match on 75 meters, but it's a struggle. My real goal is to set this up with my IC-705 and test it with Winlink and JS8CALL. I think it has a lot of potential as an EMCOMM antenna.
|Chameleon TDL set up for a local 10 meter net|
15 July 2022
- A design that emphasizes ruggedness, off road mobility, reliability and survivability
- Only a very minimum of 'bells and whistles'
- Powertrains optimized for rugged off-road performance
- A conscious selection of lower tech options (ex: coil spring suspension vs suspension air bags) to better fit the vehicle's mission requirements of reliability, mobility and survivability
- Virtually zero accommodation for 'lifestyle' options: entertainment systems, built-in wi-fi, seat-back entertainment systems, etc.
- An easily modifiable design
- A serious effort to keep the whole package reasonably affordable
10 July 2022
This is a bit of a coming out party. So, noisemakers and party hats all around!
Last month I put up a post about the Situational Awareness Map, highlighting some changes I had made, and some future plans. Well I'm happy to announce that the map is now out of beta development and is available for general use. A lot of the changes are evolutionary, not revolutionary. But the changes and improvements are significant enough that a quick overview is warranted.
Perhaps the biggest change is that the map is now focused on the entire southeastern US, not just Georgia. I've talked with key users of this map for some time and the thought is that a regional focus makes more sense; weather systems and radio signals don't respect political boundaries, and we are often called on to support our fellow ARES members in adjacent states. But how do we define 'southeastern US'? Well, the most logical way is to follow FEMA, and use FEMA Region 4 as the definition. This makes a lot of sense since organizations like SHARES, DHS, CISA, NOAA, the Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies structure their disaster response frameworks in relation to FEMA regions. So FEMA Region 4 it is!
Other key improvements come in how the map (data) layers are structured in the map. Data structure is tightly focused around individual states. This give each state the ability to focus/display only the data pertinent to their states. There is a lot of regional/national data in the map, but that's only for map layers that by design must span the region. The best example is NOAA weather radar. This is a national-level data feed and it is impossible to segregate it out by state.
Another serious issue that is starting to push to the forefront is map performance. At this time there are over 45 separate data layers in the map, everything from severe thunderstorm warning polygons to PSAP 911 service areas. Every data layer, even if it's turned off, imposes a performance penalty in the map. Let's use the HIFLD fire/EMS station dataset as an example. This is a national-level dataset with tens of thousands of point (station locations). Before the map can display just fire stations in state of Florida it must first pull across the entire dataset, apply a dynamic filter against the data to select just fire stations that fall inside of Florida, apply a complex symbology rule against those points and then dynamically display them in the map so the fire station symbols remain the same size regardless of the zoom level the user selects. That's a lot of work to ask a web browser to handle. Multiply this one example by 45 or so data layers and you start to understand why map performance is an issue that must be carefully managed. This map is starting to push the performance limits of what Chrome, Firefox and Edge can reasonably handle. For that reason I've imposed some rules that users need to be aware of:
- With the exception of the Severe Thunderstorm Warning and Tornado Warning polygons (provided by NOAA) all other data in the map is turned off by default. When the map opens, it opens to a blank screen that shows just the state and county outlines. It's up to the individual user to tailor the map to his/her needs by turning on the data layers they want. Therefore it's very important that you review the available map layers and practice turning layers on/off
- Requests to add new data layers will require some serious justification from the requester. You will have to provide a compelling operational need for the data layer you are requesting. Remember, every data layer imposes a performance penalty. During real-world events like hurricane disaster response I'll add whatever data is needed without too many questions, but for non-operational use I'll have to be very selective about what gets added
- Data layers that don't get used will get dropped. I can track individual data layer requests, and if I see a particular data layer just isn't getting used, especially if it's a national or regional layer, it'll get deleted from the map