20 November 2022

What The World Needs...

About 100  years ago, Vice President Thomas Marshall (who served under Woodrow Wilson) once quipped during a Senate debate, "What this country needs is a really good five-cent cigar"

Now it's my turn. After two months trying to get various incarnations of a new Facebook page up and running, I say that what the world needs is a strong competitor to Facebook. 

Facebook is doing every damned thing they can to monetize everything I post or click on in their environment - that's how they make a profit and are able to provide Facebook as a mostly free service. I'm not one of those who thinks everything on the web should be free. I understand the actual costs of site development, integration, sustainment, etc. It's all far more expensive than most people realize. For that reason, companies like Facebook try to squeeze every penny out of their users as possible, not by charging them for the service but by selling their personal data and preferences to other companies. Facebook isn't so much a social media platform as it is a data scraping service. Every mouse click you make in Facebook is being sold to someone, somewhere, as a data point. And if you think Facebook is the lone evil troll in the on-line universe, you're wrong. Everyone is doing it - Instagram, TikTok, Spotify, WhatsApp, YouTube, Twitter, Snapchat, LinkedIn, Google, Microsoft, Firefox, and dozens more. Basically I'm OK with Facebook scraping my data and selling it to the highest bidder. But it's my responsibility to give them them only the absolute bare minimum necessary to get access to their platform. My personal data, my rules. Everyone should take that attitude.

The problem is that Facebook, over the past several years, has turned the service into this mind numbingly complex environment that makes setting up and managing even simple personal pages a real pain-in-the-ass, and the attempts to get at your personal data are both subtle and evil. In the early days of Facebook, setting up a personal or organization page was easy, and fun. Give your page a name, post a few pictures, add some minor personal data and invite some friends and off you go. Easy-peasy. Now the set-up options are frustratingly complex and the nagging from the Facebook system is endless. Here's a hint - Facebook doesn't really want your birthdate so they can send you a birthday greeting every year. They want it because your age is a critical marketing data point. Also, Facebook loves it when you post videos of your singing cat not because they can share your interest with other cat lovers and everybody feels warm and fuzzy. No, they track your cat video postings so they can tell a marketing firm that you are a certain age (which is an indicator of income level) and that you likely buy a lot of cat food and pet care products. That's why, when you post a new cat video, you get Facebook ad offers from Chewy. Mark Zuckerberg doesn't give a damn how warm and fuzzy cat videos make you feel. He's after your personal data points so he can sell them for profit. And your data is very, very profitable.

I've seen indicators that Facebook's participation rate is dropping. There's a perception that Facebook is for old people, and there does seem to be a gradual graying out of the Facebook community. But Facebook offers something none of the other attention deficit options like TikTok offer - a website-like functionality that allows a wide range of information delivery options, and encourages in-depth discussions on topics. For this reason Facebook stands alone when looking for free platforms that do what ham radio clubs, organizations or folks like me need.

In the quest for more and more data, Facebook has entered shoot yourself in the foot territory. Even the simple personal pages are too complex to set up, and way too intrusive. I've been setting up and administering Facebook pages for the better part of a decade, so I have the perspective. Hey Facebook, the reason you user base is shrinking isn't just because of shifting demographics. It's also because you've made the environment so complex and confusing that people go looking for a simpler option. 

If I were a social media platform developer, I'd be looking at the Facebook example and figuring out ways to bring many of the same features to a simpler interface. The other thing I'd do is start charging for the service. Follow the path taken by many iOS and Android developers - the app is free but you'll get advertising 'nag-ware', or pay a small fee and the ads go away. I'd gladly pay $100 or more per year for a quality Facebook-like hosting experience that doesn't try to monetize every one of my mouse clicks, and doesn't nag me to tag cat videos with little heart emojis. 

Yup, what America (and the world) needs is a better Facebook. Only Facebook is unlikely to deliver. So all you smart platform developers out there - get to work. 

W8BYH out

18 November 2022

A Golden Opportunity

Several Amateur Radio friends and I have been discussing the current state of radio availability from the Big Three (Icom, Yaesu and Kenwood). The topic gives us something to talk about as we scoot around the south metro Atlanta region, yakking thru the local repeaters.

The discussion is driven by the steadily shrinking pool of radios available from the Big Three. Most recently, Icom took its IC-7100 out of production. For the first time in decades, Icom has no all-band/all-mode 100 watt mobile radio in their lineup. Yaesu hasn't had one since they killed off the FT-857 almost five years ago. Kenwood? Nothing, but this is a space they never seriously played in. This means the market is ripe for new products in this niche; the first manufacturer to release something will literally own the market for as long as it takes the others to catch up.

However, I'm of a different mind. I've always been a fan of the all-in-one mid-power range HF rig concept, something similar to the old SGC-2020. This radio was developed as a low/mid-range wattage field radio - specifically designed to be taken to the field and run off of batteries. It was a POTA/SOTA rig long before there was POTA or SOTA. 

What set the SGC apart from the QRP radios it overlapped with in the market, like the Icom IC-703 or the Yaesu FT-817, was its rated power output of 20 watts. The output of most HF rigs designed for field use over the past 25 years top out at 5 or 10 watts. The SGC set itself apart by offering higher output and portability. While the SGC-2020 was plagued with performance and QC issues throughout its production life, it was still a strong seller because it sat alone in the field radio market space due to that 20 watt output. Many will argue that there's little real world difference between 10 watts and 20 watts - only about 3 db. But that 3 db can make a difference under marginal conditions. 

We're almost a quarter century on from the introduction of the SGC-2020, and nothing has been released that I can find that fits this 'in-between' field radio power space - something more than 10 watts but less than 100 and offers design features that make it an ideal field radio. Things like low current draw, an integrated tuner, integrated battery, and a rugged design that offers basic protection from the elements. 

I say that now is an ideal time for one of the Big Three to design and release a 20 - 25 watt rig specifically designed for off-grid portable field use. We're seeing convergences in technologies that offer incredible possibilities:

  • SDR technology that allows more features and performance to be stuffed into smaller physical packages
  • Vastly improved power management systems and battery technologies that should enable a field rig to operate for hours on 25 watts output at a 30% duty cycle
  • Improved circuit design, components and manufacturing technologies that can dramatically shrink the physical size of boards and other internal components. If the power output is kept intentionally low - 25 watts or less - then there is more potential for small, compact designs. 
  • An improved understanding at the manufacturing level about how to make a radio that meets the international IP rating standards for protection against moisture and dust
The icing on the cake is that we're in a solar cycle upswing. Over the next five years it'll get easier and easier to make long distance contacts with less and less output power. 25 watts will be the new 100 watts in terms contact reliability. 

So here's my wish list. Icom, Yaesu and Kenwood, take notes. Elecraft too if you're looking for new product possibilities:
  • 25 watt output on SSB
  • Integrated battery pack offering up to 3 hours of operation at 25 watts, 10 hours of operation at 10 watts (30% duty cycle)
  • Integrated tuner
  • An IP52 or better rating for protection against moisture and dust
  • Integrated sound card for digital mode operations
  • Integrated wi-fi and Bluetooth
  • Integrated GPS
If you say I'm asking too much, I'll say there are a few radios on the market that already come very close. None of them approach the 25 watt power level or IP rating, but in almost all other ways meet what I've laid out on this list. The IC-705 and the Elecraft KX2 are the two best examples. When you get a chance, hold an IC-705 in your hands and ask yourself what it would take for Icom to bump up the power output, add an internal tuner and a larger battery pack, and do a little more work to have it earn an IP-52 rating. The answer is, not much. And if you think it's impossible to squeeze that much capability into a small package, find someone who has a KX2 and hold it in your hand (you'll only need one, it's so small). Consider that six years ago Elecraft managed to squeeze a high performance SDR transceiver, a world class internal tuner and an internal battery that provides hours of operation on 10 watts into that small box. You'll then understand that what I'm asking for isn't really pushing the envelope on radio design, it's merely integrating existing technologies into a new form factor.

So, Icom, Yaesu and Kenwood (and Elecraft), let's not blow this golden opportunity. Get to work. I expect something from at least one of you by Christmas.

W8BYH out

14 November 2022

The HF Renaissance In The US Army

Today I'm taking it easy and letting someone else do the hard presentation work 😄.

There are a number of good YouTube videos on the resurgence of HF communications in the US Army  that have been released in the last decade, and I've touched on the topic in this blog. For me this is a fascinating topic - I'm very much an 'everything old is new again' kind of guy. 

This presentation by Colonel Stephen Hamilton from the Army Cyber Institute is probably the best single presentation on the topic. If you've followed this topic at all in the past few years you've seen a lot of this material, but this is probably the best compilation of all the information, and COL Hamilton clearly has mastery of the topic.

The presentation was hosted by The Radio Club of America. Highly recommended, and definitely worth tagging as a favorite in your YouTube account.

W8BYH out

11 November 2022

Under Pressure

I'm 66 years old - very much a child of the space-race era. I'm old enough to remember watching John Glenn launch into orbit. Just about everything that fascinated me as a kid was related to the exploration of space. The astronauts were my heroes and everything they used grabbed my interest. The rockets they rode on, the helmets they wore, the food they ate (based on what I heard and saw, it was all Tang and freeze dried ice cream), even the pens they wrote with. There was this thing called the Fischer Space Pen that the astronauts used. Apparently ink won't flow in a traditional ball point pen in zero gravity. Hmmm... what to use to write with? 

In 1967 a guy named Paul Fisher developed a ball point pen with a sealed and pressurized (using nitrogen) ink cartridge. Fisher developed the pressurized cartridge in response to a NASA requirement for a pen that would write in zero gravity. So Paul Fisher came up with the pressurized ink cartridge, and it worked. The Fisher Space Pen has flown on every US manned space mission since Apollo 7 in 1968. 

The original Space Pen - the model that first flew on Apollo 7

This is where we pause to dispel the persistent internet myth that NASA picked a million dollar solution for a one dollar problem - the Americans developed expensive space pens while the clever Russkies used simpler, cheaper and more reliable pencils. That's bullshit. While pencils were used in space by both sides, nobody liked them. The problem was, what happens to all the shavings and dust you create when you sharpen the pencil? It all starts floating around inside the capsule, can be accidentally inhaled by the astronauts, can short out switches, is flammable, and just makes a mess. Both the US and the Russians also tried using grease pencils and plastic slates, but neither solution made anyone happy. In fact, the Russians ended up buying Fisher's pens for their own manned space missions.

Fisher didn't invent a space 'pen'; he first invented a pressurized ink cartridge that could be used in just about any pen body. But Fisher saw the obvious market appeal of an officially adopted NASA pen and immediately started manufacturing the entire pen and selling it as the official Space Pen. They've been selling them under that name for half a century. 

The Space Pen concept isn't just a good fit for zero gravity conditions. Because the ink is under pressure it will flow under a wide variety of conditions - very low temps, on wet paper (even under water), on greasy surfaces. That makes it an ideal pen for just general writing use.

As a kid I always wanted a Space Pen. It's what the astronauts used, right? But they were never cheap. Throughout my professional life I've used a truckload of pens. Literally, you could fill the bed of an F-150 with all the pens I've used down through the years. I was in a career field where I did a lot of writing. I went through hundreds, if not thousands, of pens and developed some strong preferences, particularly for the Cross models. I'm probably one of the few humans on the face of the planet that has actually used up all the ink in a ball point pen cartridge before losing the pen. Yup, I've actually run a lot of pen cartridges dry. But I've never used a Space Pen. Until...

A few weeks ago Roberta and I were shopping at the Fort Benning PX and I happened by a display for Rite-in-the-Rain products. I like their notebooks for use during things like POTA activations, so figured I'd grab a few extras. The display also featured some Rite-in-the-Rain ballpoint pens. I pulled one off the pegboard and read the back of the package. It's then I realized the pen is just a re-badged plastic body pen made by Fisher, and uses their famous pressurized Space Pen cartridge. At about $10 I figured it was worth a try.

To my delight, I've found this is a really great pen. The whole package works. The pen diameter is ideal and comfortable for me to hold in my somewhat cramped left-handed writing style. It's very light weight, but surprisingly well made with an excellent click mechanism. The ink flow is smooth and even. The ability to write in zero gravity aside, this is just a good pen.

So as you are planning your next POTA or SOTA expedition, and need a pen that won't fail even under some gnarly weather conditions, consider one of these Space Pens. If they were good enough for Apollo 7, they're good enough for you!

W8BYH out

06 November 2022

Five Years On

Google sent me a reminder a few days ago that November 5th 2022 is the fifth anniversary of this blog. My, how time has rocketed by. In my personal life I don't think there's been such a momentous and rocky five years. I lost my beloved father, gained some new  friends, lost some old friends. I said goodbye to some four legged friends that I loved and respected more than most humans I've met. I watched COVID leave its indelible stamp on the world, watched this country tear itself apart over petty and deeply partisan politics, watched many government institutions I used to respect crumble to the ground, and I watched with deep sadness as my beloved US Army lost its mission focus and wandered off into political correctness la-la land. 

On the flip side there have been plenty of blessings. I stumbled up the corporate ladder a bit. Same frustrations, just a little bit more money. After 20 years my wife retired from what was becoming a soul-crushing teaching job with the local school system and found herself a private school teaching job she loves. We were blessed with a new granddaughter, and are close enough to all of our grandchildren that we can watch them grow up virtually in our own back yard. Our extended family of brothers and sisters and their families seem to have made it through COVID just fine. And a few new furry four legged friends have entered our lives.

So, in conjunction with my lovely wife I've decided it's time for a major life re-focus. It's time for retirement. A year from now I plan on packing up my desk at work and saying goodbye to some dear coworkers and friends. The future will be all about family and close friends and doing the things I want to do, not what I have to do.

Things changed somewhat in the Amateur Radio-related world too. I've gone deeper into the hobby and shifted my focus more towards emergency communications. I find the the discussions and issues surrounding Amateur Radio-based emergency communications fascinating. I've become a MARS and SHARES member and just completed the CISA AUXCOMM course. Yes, this is all an outgrowth of COVID and the political unrest that is wracking the country, but I've always been something of a prepper with a natural interest in doomsday scenario planning and response. Not the goofy zombie apocalypse stuff, but real-world scenarios like tornados, hurricanes and earthquakes; things that will happen.

One of the things that's been different in this five year period is the lack of change brought on by the perfect storm of COVID, the resulting economic slow-down, and the loss of computer chip manufacturing capabilities. In any normal five year period market forces would have driven serious changes in product line-ups. Instead, among the major Amateur Radio system manufacturers (Icom, Yaesu, Kenwood, Elecraft, Flex, and a few others) we've seen a stagnation. Kenwood has all but left the Amateur market to focus on their new public safety sector (but I understand they will be back in a big way once the chip shortages are behind us). Icom entered the COVID period with a strong product portfolio (IC-7300, IC-7610 and the IC-705) but seems to be biding its time and resources to see where things are headed. Yaesu also entered the COVID period with some strong offerings, and seemed to be the only manufacturer that focused on bringing new products to market during the lockdown - things like the FT-5DR (and incremental upgrade to the FT-3DR) andhe FT-710 (a competitor to the Icom IC-7300). Most companies just continued making the existing products in their line-ups as they tried to figure out where the market was headed. 

What has moved forward is software development. COVID didn't stop the coders, and I've followed steady updates and improvements to existing platforms like Winlink, Vara, WSJTX, Fldigi, JS8CALL and various logging and rig control systems like Ham Radio Deluxe. We've even seen significant new software packages come on-line, like VaraChat (keep your eye on that one) and ION2G (a user friendly ALE package). The past five years have actually been a lot of fun, from a software perspective. 

So what are my predictions for the next five years? Some of them are pretty obvious:
  • Manufacturers will kill off legacy products that are just too old to keep in their lineups - radios like the Yaesu FT-818 and the Icom IC-718 will be gone.
  • Virtually all new HF radio designs will be SDR-based
  • Radios will increasingly morph into internet appliances - the rise of the 'virtual radio' is just around the corner. 
  • Radios with embedded wi-fi and Bluetooth will be the norm. The lack of wi-fi or Bluetooth will become a reason to not purchase a radio
  • New mobile 100 watt 'shack-in-the-box offerings. A few years back Yaesu killed off it's ageing but still great FT-857, a 100 watt small form factor HF/VHF/UHF rig, and never replaced it in their lineup. Icom just stopped production on the IC-7100, it's mobile HF/VHF/UHF offering. Neither manufacturer has anything in this market segment. Nature abhors a vacuum, and market forces will prevail. I'm fairly confident both manufacturers have something in the pipeline, or at least the late design stages
  • With the rise of SDR, we'll see every new radio coming to market with embedded digital (internal sound card) capability. Just like with wi-fi or Bluetooth, the lack of an embedded sound card will quickly become a reason to not purchase a radio
  • We'll finally see the demise of x86-based processors and operating systems, with a wholesale shift to 64 bit processors as the baseline standard and 128 bit processors coming on strong. For a number of years now hardware capability has exceeded Amateur radio software requirements - most Amateur radio applications just 'loaf along' on modern hardware. Let's see if the developers can step up and deliver impressive new application performance that leverages all this new processing power. Oh, and you'll have to finally give up your Windows XP machine
  • For years people have been predicting the death of Windows and the meteoric rise of Linux in the Amateur Radio desktop world. Sorry. Ain't going to happen unless Microsoft makes some majorly dumb licensing moves in the OS world (which they've been known to do). In five years we'll still be talking about mostly Windows-based applications
  • Speaking of computer hardware, in five years virtually all Amateur Radio operators will be using laptops. The desktop is dead, dead, dead
This next list is less about obvious things, but more an informed wish list; things I hope will emerge:
  • Yaesu and perhaps even Kenwood will release their market response to the Icom IC-705. Yaesu's current QRP rig - the FT-818 - is simply too old to compete for much longer, and Kenwood has nothing in this market space. Yaesu in particular simply can't let this market segment go unchallenged
  • I think we'll see one or more main-line manufacturers come out with what I'll call 'tweener' radios - HF field radios that are battery powered and offer more output than a 10 watt QRP rig, but less than a 100 watt desktop rig. With the meteoric rise of weak signal digital modes like FT-8, the huge popularity of field activities like POTA, and the realization that, with improving solar conditions, we'll soon be able to get things done with just 20 or 50 watts that we couldn't get done last year with 100 watts, Icom and Yaesu will see this market niche and each bring something to market
  • Integrated battery technologies will continue to improve, particularly in the HF radio segment, and we'll start to see rigs with factory battery packs using the much safer and more efficient LiFePo chemistry
  • Speaking of battery packs, I think we'll also see the concept of the 'factory empty' battery pack that's being pioneered by the Russian manufacturer Lab599. They are about to release a battery pack for their TX-500 QRP radio that uses popular Li-Ion cells. But they will ship the battery pack without batteries. It will be up to the user to locally source the batteries. This is a great idea that gets around all the difficulties of shipping somewhat dangerous lithium-ion batteries to markets around the world.
I think that's about it for prognostication and wishful thinking. I'll wrap this up by saying that it's been a very interesting half-decade. I plan to keep this blog going for at least that long, hopefully longer. As long as I have an interest in Amateur Radio and feel I've got something worth writing about, I'll blog.

Plan on meeting back here in 2027 to see how accurate my predictions were! 

W8BYH out

02 November 2022

US Military Communications in Vietnam

This is a super-geeky military communications history talk - a perfect fit for this blog. If you have the time to watch or listen you will find this a fascinating first-person account of communications activities from Vietnam all the way up to the first Gulf War. This chat with retired Army Lieutenant Colonel David Fiedler is both interesting and illustrative. It's not just about HF communications, but about how the Army handled communications requirements and challenges overall during the Vietnam and post-Vietnam era.

LTC Fiedler provides a fascinating overview of Army-level and theater-level communications decision making, including some not-so-complimentary comments about Signal Corps senior leadership and officer training. I also enjoyed his comments about how Army Special Forces handled its tactical communications challenges by bypassing 'Big Signal' rules and going their own route with radio development. Many of the radios that emerged from that development effort were groundbreaking HF manpack systems that are hot collector items today.

One last observation. It's clear from listening to LTC Fiedler that as far back as the early 60's the Army Signal Corps had blinders on in regards to HF-based long-haul comms systems. In Vietnam this led to a critical communications gap, when VHF line-of-sight system failed, particularly in heavy jungle canopy. It seems the Army Signal Corps forgot that it's a combat support branch - the communications mission exist to support the warfighter, and is not an end unto itself.

W8BYH out