29 October 2022

Ditching Old Radios

Looks like the US Army is planning to come off its GWOT tactical communications system spending spree and possibly reduce the sheer number of radios at the battalion, company and platoon levels. The military communications trade journal C4ISRNET published an article a few days ago discussing the challenge of shedding a 20 year-old communications technology base (encrypted single channel radio systems) and moving to embedded networked systems that start with a cryptographic software base, then have the 'radio' built on top of that, rather than start with the radio and 'strap' crypto to a sometimes incompatible communications waveform (like M110A/B/C). I think I got that right. Someone check me 😄.

If you've paid attention to the images or video that's come out of places like Afghanistan or Iraq in the past decade, many of our Soldiers on patrol looked like porcupines, with antennas sticking out all over the place. One antenna for the platoon net, one for the company net, one for the fires (artillery, air support, etc.) net, and so on. In the good old days of the Cold War we used to train our Soldiers to shoot at the Russian tank with the most antennas on it, because the antennas indicated it was a 'leader' tank - the tank used by the company, battalion or regimental commander. The same is true today. The Soldier walking around with a lot of antennas sticking out of him or her is usually the unit leader, and gets targeted first. It sounds like one of the goals of this new program is to reduce the number of antennas by making the Soldier just a 'node' in a wireless communications network, and the network manages who he/she gets to talk to. 

An interesting tidbit mentioned in passing in the article is the Army's focus away from the brigade or battalion task-force as the base combat unit. It looks like we're swinging back to the division as the base-level operational combat element. For decades the Army's focus was on smaller, easier to deploy brigade and battalion task forces, putting systems in place that significantly pumped up the lethality and communications capability of these smaller forces. The Army recognizes our next fight will likely be with China or Russia, and in a near-peer slugfest with either of those two we'll be feeding divisions into the fight, not brigades.

Sadly, none of this soon to be obsolete communications gear will flow to the civilian market for Amateur or even MARS or SHARES use. Because encryption on even these older systems is embedded at the operating system level it's impossible to pull it out and create a truly unclassified radio. Plus there is hardware integrated at the board-level that the spooks at the NSA and other three-letter agencies don't want anyone to have access to. So sadly, most of this legacy gear will be ground up and melted down.

W8BYH out

25 October 2022

From The Top Of Stone Mountain

The Atlanta, Georgia region is home to one of the largest exposed igneous intrusions in the world. That's to say, it's a big granite mound. A really big granite mound, standing about 825 feet above the surrounding terrain. It's called Stone Mountain, and it's a major tourist draw for the Atlanta area. Folks hike up it, run up it, party on it, hold religious services on it and will occasionally haul a radio to the top and do a Summits On The Air (SOTA) activation on it.

And no one does the radio on top of Stone Mountain thing better than my good friend, Joe Domaleski, KI4ASK. 

I could go on blah, blah, blah, talking about Joe's adventure, but there's no need for more commentary. Joe handles it all in this excellently produced and edited video.

Great job Joe, and... more! We want more!

W8BYH out

15 October 2022

End Of An Era

Yesterday morning my Dell XPS desktop computer died. While preparing for an on-line meeting I got an incredibly rare Windows 10 BSOD*. After several tries I realized that I couldn't get to the recovery partition, so I knew the hard drive had given up the ghost. I might have a recovery USB drive laying around here somewhere, but the image is old and, frankly, I didn't think it's worth the effort to keep trying. I guess I can't blame the computer. It ran virtually non-stop, 24/7, for almost five years. I got my money's worth out of it.

Once I realized I'd never boot this box from the hard drive I shrugged, pulled it off the desk and plopped my Surface Pro down in its place. Life goes on. But then I finally understood that the end of an era had arrived. For the first time since 1985 there was no desktop computer or tower sitting on my desk, and likely won't be in the future. 

My daughter and I playing on my Tandy 1000, around 1986

I grew to adulthood with computers. Born a year before Sputnik, I grew up in an era where American technical prowess was unmatched, and computers were at the center of everything. My friends and I were fascinated by science and engineering. In our world guys with slide rules weren't geeks, they were cool. Computers filled rooms (really, they did) and dispensed digital wisdom codified in stacks of fanfold paper and blinking lights. To be allowed to just approach a computer terminal was the equivalent of approaching the high altar in a cathedral. "Come forward my son, but only with fear and awe in your heart."

I didn't get access to a computer for serious work until my sophomore year in college, spending hours on the university's time share system running epidemiological 'what-if' analysis of some unknown mosquito-borne disease. The goal was to kill off the vectors before the vectors killed off the hosts, and it was a surprisingly grim simulation of how fast mosquitoes can spread disease. Suffice to say, the poor residents of the mythical town in South America didn't fare too well when I was at the keyboard.

I graduated in 1979 and was soon in the Army and training to be an Engineer officer. At Fort Belvoir we were introduced to the Engineer School's IBM time-share system, learning to run some rudimentary engineering analysis and project scheduling software, and also dabbling in a bit of Basic programming. This was at the dawn of the PC era; Apple had released the Apple II just two years before, and the first IBM PC would hit the market in 1981. Of course both machines were way beyond the means of any newly minted second lieutenant. An Apple II sold in 1977 for the equivalent of over $6,300 in today's dollars. Most of us made do with lesser forms of computing - the Timex/Sinclair 1000, various Atari, Commodore and Radio Shack models, etc. These were all technically computers, but in reality were little more than souped-up game machines pointed at the home market. 

When the first IBM PC hit the market, it hit with a bang. Here was IBM 'big iron' in tabletop format. Ignore the fact that the CPU was a wheezy Intel 8088, the graphics were a joke, many home game consoles came with more RAM, and the operating system, PC-DOS, had been hastily cobbled together by a couple of kids working out of a Seattle area office. None of that really mattered. What led to the PC's market dominance was its open system architecture. Anyone could develop add-on hardware and write software to expand and improve the PC's performance. The only thing IBM kept proprietary was the system BIOS. The PC add-on market took off like a rocket. Plus, although PCs were expensive, they were seen as a safe bet in the corporate world. After all, they were IBMs, and nobody ever got fired for buying IBM.

Today the IBM-PC layout looks ho-hum, but in the early 1980s it was groundbreaking
and set the standard for most personal computers that followed 

The IBM-PC was such a hit that the inevitable quickly followed. Competing manufacturers figured out how to reverse engineer the BIOS - reproducing instruction sets that did the same thing the IBM BIOS did, but doing it differently to avoid IBM's patents. Compaq was the first competitor to get this figured out. Less than a year after the PC appeared you could buy PC clones that ran non-IBM versions of PC-DOS, something called MS-DOS, developed and sold by the same kids in Seattle who had renamed their company to Microsoft.

By 1985 I was using IBM-PCs in my work, and I badly wanted my own PC to use at home. But even the clones were pricey. While there may not have been honor among hardware and software pirates, everyone understood the market value of what they were making (or stealing). Even the early clones like the Compaq PCs were beyond my reach. Then, in early 1984, I picked up a computer magazine and spotted something interesting - Tandy (the company that owned Radio Shack) had announced a low cost PC clone called the Tandy 1000. Over the course of the next few months I eagerly followed its progress, reading the reviews, catching the articles in all the magazines. The Tandy 1000 was considered a home computer, but it was a true IBM-PC clone that ran MS-DOS. With few exceptions it could run almost every software application written for the IBM. More important, it was affordable. We were living in Germany at the time, so one afternoon I called an independent Radio Shack outlet in Maine that advertised in the back of Byte magazine and asked if they would ship to Germany. They said 'sure!' and a few weeks later I had my first desktop PC clone. 

Since the day that Tandy 1000 arrived, over 37 years ago, there's been a PC 'box' of some make or model on my home desk, wherever that desk happened to be.

But yesterday marked the end of that era. When I plopped my Surface Pro tablet down in place of my Dell desktop I realized I'd never be going back. 

What I couldn't realize when I bought the Dell five years ago was that I didn't really need another heavy iron desktop PC. My computing habits and needs were rapidly changing and a good laptop would have filled the role just fine. I just couldn't see it at the time. But around 2020 I finally understood this and started contemplating my options. I kept the Dell desktop because it was paid for and working fine, but I was also starting to think about what I would do when it gave up the ghost. That time has come. 

So farewell to the heavy iron PC, and all hail the mobile hybrid computing platform. 

And hey, look at all this new free desk space!

W8BYH out

*Blue Screen Of Death - that infamous Microsoft crash screen that early Windows users loved to hate

09 October 2022

Daddy Want

My good friend Jim contacted me earlier this evening about something he found for sale on the internet. Jim's a military surplus nut, like me, and when something catches his eye he knows it'll catch mine. And he's right.

After all, who wouldn't go ga-ga over a 32' 1972 Uniflite 721 PBR (that would be US Navy terminology for a Patrol Boat, River) complete with twin 50 caliber M2 machine guns in a bow mount, and another 50 cal and an M60 30 cal in pedestal mounts on the stern deck . For me the deal clenchers are the two (TWO!) AN/VRC-46 VHF radios installed below deck. All for a measly quarter million bucks.

Need more convincing? Just watch the promo video. Make sure the sound is turned up.

Yessir, daddy want!

W8BYH out

Vara Chat

For the past month I've been playing around with and learning a new-to-me HF chat application called VarAC (or Vara Chat). I first heard about VarAC earlier this year, but was wrapped up in other radio things and didn't pay it any attention. Then several weeks weeks ago I caught a discussion thread on the Vara Groups.io site focusing on VarAC, and I became interested enough to give it a try.

What is VarAC? VarAC is an HF chat application developed by Irad Deutsch, 4Z1AC. VarAC uses Vara as the communications protocol, so it 'sits' on top of Vara and takes full advantage of Vara's robust connection reliability and speed capabilities. VarAC competes in the same ham radio application space as JS8CALL, an application I've written about in the past. When JS8CALL came out about 3 years ago I was impressed. Finally, an HF digital chat mode that was robust, professionally developed and offered excellent functionality. Plus for the huge existing base of FT8 (WSJTX) fans, learning the new application was a cake-walk since it's the JS8 protocol is based on FT8. I pushed hard (with only limited success) to have JS8CALL adopted as a communications standard within our local and state ARES organizations.

And then along comes VarAC. VarAC and JS8CALL share a lot of functionality. They're designed to do the same thing - live keyboard-to-keyboard chat on HF - so you'd expect that they share many of the same features. The differences in functionality are a reflection of the transport protocols (JS8CALL vs. Vara) and each developer's vision for their own product. Both applications are equally good in within their own design and implementation envelopes.

The W8BYH Venn diagram of JS8CALL & VarAC features

VarAC includes a few neat features that JS8CALL lacks. Perhaps the biggest one is the ability to transfer files and images, something JS8CALL can't do (...yet?). VarAC's transport mode is also interesting. It's a very tight P2P connection, established and maintained by Vara. It's as though Vara sets up a VPN-like tunnel between the communicating stations, and makes sure all message traffic is heard on both ends 100% error free. To do this, VarAC selects a frequency 'slot' or channel for each P2P session, and holds that slot until communications are complete and either party formally ends the session. VarAC is also very good at attempting to re-establish connections if something inadvertently happens to break the connection, like band conditions changing drastically in the middle of a QSO.

Is VarAC a better EMCOMM tool than JS8CALL? I can't say. JS8CALL does offer a few features that make it a compelling choice - the ability to do group calls and the ability to use third party JS8CLL stations to store and forward message traffic. But the VarAC developers have just announced that the upcoming release (within a few weeks of this post) will include the first version of 'store and forward' capability.

I'll be doing a more in-depth comparison of JS8CALL and VarAC in the future. But for right now your homework assignment is to go out and install and configure VarAC and make some contacts!

W8BYH out

07 October 2022

What If Joe Stalin Designed A Radio?

For years I've been down on Yaesu radios, but just the current generation of Yaesus, particularly their lower-end HF models like the FT-891 and 991A, and their handheld radios. These aren't bad radios - in fact they are quite capable and very well made. But it's as though the radio interfaces are done by a high schooler with little understanding of  man-machine interface design. Additionally, it seems that too many Yaesu designs follow the rule of 'thou shalt not steal market share from existing products', so old radios linger too long in the lineup, and new products get stripped of features one-by-one as the marketing guys and bean counters hold sway.

However, I have a soft spot for Yaesu's early 21st century offerings. I'm talking about the FT-817 (still produced as the FT-818), the FT-857 and the FT-897. At the time of their release (between 2000 - 2005) they were considered groundbreaking - an entire suite of radios specifically designed for outdoor use, scaling up in size and capabilities from one to the next. I own an FT-818, I used to own an FT-857, but sold it to buy an FT-891 (big mistake), and I recently bought a good used FT-897D. The 818, the 857 and the 897 are what I call unpretentious radios - they just work, with a minimum of fuss. The diminutive 818 exudes 'cuteness' while still offering an amazing array of features and a very good design layout. The 857, very specifically designed for mobile operations, exhibited one of the best developed control layouts ever put on a radio of its size. The placing of control buttons concentrically around the VFO dial was a brilliant way to address the lack of front panel real-estate. Sadly, Yaesu didn't carry that design element into the later FT-891. I'm still scratching my head over that one. 

But the FT-897 is a radio that, while unshackled from the front panel space restrictions of the 818 and the 857, still exhibits some odd layout elements. Nothing bad, but it's as though it was designed by someone who attended the Moscow School Of Radio and Farm Tractor Design. A tuning knob sits almost square in the center of the front panel, like the snout of a pig. A low resolution/low contrast LCD laughs at the pretense of modern digital radio displays. Industrial grade buttons and lights are scattered across the panel. A squelch knob that works the reverse of every other squelch knob ever designed. Two 'Batt A' and 'Batt B' lights that let you know which under-capacity battery pack you have selected for a whopping one hour or so of portable operations. Stylized front panel protuberances that pretend to offer protection to various buttons. A 'sidecar' tuner design - none of this fancy internal integration stuff, let's just bolt that sucker to the side of the radio and pretend it belongs there. And the piece de resistance - a carrying handle so outlandishly robust that it could do double duty as a handle on a Russian heavy machine gun.

A screen capture from Tracy, VE3TWM's excellent short video on the 897

All of this oddity of design mashes together to present a radio that works great, is a hoot to use, and is uniquely designed for outdoor use. 

The early 2000s Yaesu command set is easy to figure out with just a cursory reading of the manual, the buttons are well labeled so there's no mistaking what they do, the display gives you all the key information you need to operate, and not a pixel's worth more, and the radio covers all the ham bands from 70 cm to 160 meters, in all modes. It's a good performer on SSB and FM, and I'm told it's very good on CW. The 897 is the Swiss Army knife of ham radio, if Swiss Army knives were made in a Russian tank factory.

One of Yaesu's design goals for the 897 was low power consumption for portable use. That's why we get the small display, no back-lit buttons, no IF digital signal processing and other power saving design features. The 897 sips power relative to more modern Yaesu rigs. It's receive power draw of 700 mA is about 400 mA lower than the FT-891, and is only one third that of the FT-991A. Even the much beloved Icom IC-706, a same-generation competitor to the 897, pulls a full 2 amps on receive.

The FT-897 does have some known issues, but the only one that gives me pause is the tendency of the  LCD display to develop vertical stripes - entire columns of dead pixels. This is a big problem with both the 897 and the 857. In fact, the first question knowledgeable buyers of either radio will ask is "Does the display have 'zebra stripes'?" Until a few years ago the fix was easy - ship the radio to Yaesu for a screen replacement, or order the part and have a knowledgeable repair shop do it. But I am told that Yaesu is now completely out of stock on these panels. So I watch my radio display like a hawk, praying I don't see any dreaded stripes developing.

My 897, sporting an LDG 'sidecar' tuner

So how does it all work? Well, quite good, actually. I don't stress this radio out - it sits in my shack and works mainly 2 and 10 meters on just a few fixed frequencies. Its performance on VHF is not as good as my Icom ID-5100, and its HF performance is nowhere near as good as my IC-7300. But it doesn't have to near peer to anything else. No, my FT-897's job is to enjoy a comfortable retirement, work a little now and then, and remind me of a time when Yaesu built uncomplicated radios that worked without a lot of drama. And looked like they could be used as a chock block for a T-72.

W8BYH out