Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Space Station Parts

Went shopping for furniture at a local surplus warehouse and wound up buying some old ISS hardware. Got a good deal, but I don't know what I'll do with them - they're not even compatible with my space station.

Thursday, October 30, 2008


I've always liked DHL. They've always been great when it comes to delivering stuff in a hurry to odd places all over the world, even when being shot at. When I needed a domestic courier for overnight packages, I went with DHL because I was already using them for import and export shipping, and because I could get really good prices on prepaid shippers through Costco.

Lately, though, I'm having second thoughts. For quite a while I used their overnight services with no major problems - the worst was a rural delivery that got lost for a few days. When they moved the cutoff time for shipments from 4:45 to 3:45 it was tolerable, if annoying. But several weeks ago, I discovered that two days after dropping off a couple of urgent packages at the local depot well before the cutoff, they hadn't even been removed from the drop box in front of the depot!

Apparently something like half of their drivers just walked off the job. After pleading with the woman at the desk for about 10 minutes, I finally got her to give the packages back, since they weren't going to make it out that night and one of them absolutely had to be delivered the next day. I had to carry that one over to UPS myself and pay about $50 for UPS Red next-day shipping. Fortunately UPS has a much later cutoff time.

I never got my money back on the wasted prepaid shippers. They've never made good on any delivery guarantee, for that matter. I've filed a couple of claims and never got a thing out of it.

The worst was last week when I got a call from a customer who'd ordered a part to be delivered to their hotel room while they were briefly in the country on business. It hadn't shown up on time, and when I called DHL to inquire about it, I was told that since it was outside of a major metropolitan area they couldn't provide next-day service. Ok, I thought, two days should still be plenty. Nope - turns out that they don't even try, they just hand it over to the post office. Estimated delivery time on this 'overnight' package? Eight days! For under $5 I could have handed it to the post office myself and had it there in two days.

Turns out DHL is scaling back their US operations. I'm sorry to lose what was, for a while, a very attractive shipping option. I shipped a lot of stuff crammed into reasonably priced flat-rate mailers. Guess I'll have to work on some UPS or FedEx options.

I think it's worth mentioning that the USPS does an awesome job about 99.6% of the time. Even after all of the rate increases, you can still get a 1 lb package coast to coast in about two days for around $5, even to remote rural addresses. I've shipped thousands of pacakges by first class and priority mail, and they've lost or seriously delayed maybe half a dozen. The local clerks deserve some credit, too. Mario, Dave, Esther, Lynn - you guys are great. Edgar - you're new, so I'll cut you some slack.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


A couple of weeks ago I volunteered to help out with a session on APRS at SARCity, an annual search and rescue conference in Barstow. I'd actually been to SARCity twice before, as an Explorer with the Santa Maria SAR team, so I was looking forward to seeing what had changed in the 15 years or so since my last visit.

Originally the class was supposed to be on K9 tracking, but thanks to some cancellations I wound up doing the whole 90 minute session myself and had the focus of the class shifted to general APRS use for SAR - I'm really not a dog person and didn't have much to show in that area.

Byonics and BigRedBee gratiously loaned me examples of their latest integrated tracker/transmitters, and I tried to keep the talk vendor-neutral. I had one of the first prototypes of my transceiver package there, but it's programmed for 12.5 kHz channels and won't tune 144.39 Mhz, so I didn't have it running as part of the demo. The final, 5 kHz/6.25 kHz radios are due in this week - I'll try to get something posted on them soon.

The class went pretty well, I think. I managed to run a bit over my time limit without really looking at my talk outline. This is probably the third or fourth time that's happened - I think I need to learn to just put the outline away once I'm satisfied with my slides and know what I want to talk about.

In all, the weekend was a blast. Surprisingly, I didn't see anyone I recognized from the Santa Barbara County team. Which was probably just as well, I suppose. There are some great people on that team, but I'm still bitter about how my association with the team ended and there are a couple of people I'd rather not have to deal with. I can't even write about it without getting angry all over again, so I'm not going to try to explain.

It was very gratifying to hear from members of several other teams that they thought I had something valuable to contribute to SAR, though. I've been invited back to talk again next year, so hopefully next time I'll have a lot more to demonstrate and I'll be able to do some more hands-on exercises.

Maybe I'll be able to overlap it a bit with the GIS track put on by ESRI - from my motel room in Barstow I was able to hack together a new output module for the Tracker2 that produces the same format as the Thales radios they had already interfaced to ArcMap, and on Sunday morning we were able to successfully plot APRS stations. ArcMap/ArcView/ArcGIS and that whole family have a steep learning curve and a hefty price tag, but apparently ESRI has some sort of grant program for SAR teams, and they're so far beyond the usual mapping applications most teams use that there's really no comparison. Assuming you've got a ton of computing power and a trained operator, anyway.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


Wow - I'm way behind in my blog postings. I'd better start catching up now or I'm never going to get it done. I guess I'll start with my vacation in Croatia.

I flew to Dubrovnik by way of LA, Frankfurt, and Zagreb on June 18th. Arrived at the apartment (just across the street from the right-most tower in the picture) a little before midnight on the 19th. My friends Noelle and Rachel arrived separately on the 20th, from Iraq and Florida respectively.

The old city is absolutely beautiful. We spent a day visiting all of the local museums, another island hopping in the Elaphiti Islands, took a day trip to Mostar in Bosnia, went horseback riding, attended a very touristy 'authentic village dinner' party, went on a scuba trip, and after Noelle and Rachel left on the 27th, I made a day trip by myself into Montenegro to see Kotor and Budva. The Bay of Kotor is gorgeous, but Budva is way over-touristed.

A couple of chance occurrences on the trip happend to contribute to my decision to leave my day job when the vacation was over. First, the guy seated across from me at the dinner party in the village turned out to be the former head of research for a major water utility in the UK - and had experimented with some of the same approaches we were working on in our project, and abandoned the effort because of the same problems that have always made me doubtful about our prospects for success. And over a bottle of Havana Club back in the apartment, Noelle described her personal experience with the Army system we were in the process of writing a proposal for. Turns out the system was an even bigger boondoggle than I'd guessed. And something she mentioned about another, entirely unrelated program, turned out to be directly relevant to what the company later tried to convince me to stay on to help with.

I had a 7-hour layover in Zagreb on the way back, and a local OpenTracker user picked me up at the airport and took me out for a beer. I found out a little more about commercial use of my trackers in the country, and maybe even got myself a legitimate business expense deduction for part of the trip.

I'll post pictures to my Flickr account when I have time, but I think that's enough for tonight.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

More Machining Fun

Here's the scarab I mentioned before - I scanned the original with the MDX-20 and cut a new one out of machinable wax. It was finished with a 1/16" ball-nose end mill, which did a surprisingly good job of reproducing small details. It's also a lot more resistant to breaking than the smaller, more expensive tools I'm learning to use. So far I've broken two 1/64" end mills, both in their first 60 seconds of operation.

Here's another experiment. It's a model of Mount St. Helens, based on USGS digital elevation models. I'm sure there must be an easier way to generate stereolithography files from DEMs, but for this test I had to make a VRML file and convert it to STL format using an evaluation copy of Rhino.

I still haven't had much opportunity to mill PCBs with the machine, but I'm still finding other useful things to do with it. Today I fabricated a replacement lens for my Maglite out of Lexan. I figure that saved me at least $2. Or rather, it would have if the original lens had actually been broken. But at least I've got a spare, just in case.

Water, Water, Everywhere

I suppose it can't quite compare with the flooding in the Midwest right now (we were in Des Moines for the 1993 installment, and I hear it's worse this time) but we had quite a mess here over the weekend. The hot water hose on the washing machine burst on Friday afternoon, and fortunately I was home at the time, but I was working upstairs and didn't discover it for half an hour or so.

By that time the water was about two inches deep in the laundry room and had run all the way through the office, under the door, and down the driveway. I got the water shut off and started a siphon with the garden hose. Once that was going I grabbed the wet/dry vac from the garage and started slurping up five gallons at a time and dumping it outside. Took two days for my back and leg muscles to recover from that, but it got most of the water out.

Tory made it home about then and started making phone calls while I continued damage abatement. It took the water damage cleanup people three or four hours to show up, and we spent that time continuing to haul stuff out of the office and storage area while Charlie worked the vacuum, extracting as much water as he could from the carpet.

For the next five days that part of the house was sealed off, full of blowers and a giant dehumidifier. The temperature got up to about 105 F in there, so I didn't get a lot of hardware work done over the weekend.

In the end, the damage wasn't too bad - maybe a hundred bucks worth of packing materials ruined, some cables destroyed, and a bunch of camping and emergency gear made very soggy.

The lost time is the biggest inconvenience, I suppose. That was supposed to be my last free weekend this month - this weekend we're going to Magic Mountain, and I'll be in Dubrovnik for the two weekends after that.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

It's over!

Hamvention 2008 is done! Dayton is my most stressful annual trip by a wide margin. This year went fairly smoothly, and I think the display was the best we've had yet. Jason did a great job putting together the nĂ¼vi / T2-135 display and it drew a decent size crowd.

I was definitely more busy this year than last - I got out of the booth a couple of times on Friday and managed to see at least some of the other exhibits, at least in passing, and even had time to eat a cold hot dog over the course of about an hour. Saturday was a little more hectic, and I don't recall even getting a bathroom break for about eight hours, and no food at all. Can't say I really noticed until it was over, though.

Financially I think it was probably a wash, as usual. Between booth space, airfare, hotel, shipping, and so forth it's hard to turn much of a profit at Dayton, but it's worth doing for the exposure.

I'm still about a hundred emails behind thanks to the trip, and I've got a ton of other stuff to get done this weekend. I did finally get a chance to try making a PCB with the MDX-20 today, though. And broke my first tool in the process - not one of the $6 ones, either. It was my sole $48 1/64 inch end mill, of course. I had it cutting just a bit too deep and a bit too fast, and it lasted about 5 or 10 seconds. Did a nice job right up until it snapped, though!

Somehow I wound up with a bunch of 0.062" Garolite G-10/FR4. It's the same stuff the PCB substrate is made of, but colored. I cut some shapes out of one of the black sheets and they look cool, but they seem to be very prone to scratching.

I'll have to pick up some more polycarbonate and play with that. I've only got a 1" thick slab, which is a bit more than I want to start with.

I got the scanner option running the other day, too. We put Charlie's little stone scarab carving in it and generated a model with 0.008" resolution. Took a few hours. I then had it cut a new scarab out of machinable wax. It came out pretty good, but I'm still learning how to properly set up roughing and finishing processes.

I even managed to make a useful production item with the machine. It took me a few tries, but I got it to do the required cutouts in the ABS end panels for the ADS-SR1 repeater. I have a couple hundred aluminum panels already fabricated and paid for, but I should be able to do the next batch in-house. It's amazing how much more mess a small amount of ABS makes, compared to the machinable wax. I think it must be a result of its electrostatic properties. It coats every surface in the machine, while the wax just piles up nicely to be vacuumed away.

Monday, May 12, 2008

New toy

I'm totally swamped with Hamvention preparations, but my new Roland MDX-20 CNC milling mchine came in today and I had to try it out. It's been working great, at least since I figured out that one of my serial ports was bad and was causing the machine to try to throw chunks of wood at me.

Right now it's running through one of its sample files - a banana, which it's cutting from machinable wax.

Anyway, back to flyers and price lists and demo hardware!

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Mila Rainof, 1980 - 2008

No project updates this week, just a farewell to a friend. I met Mila through Tory - they were in the same draw group at Stanford and had been very close ever since. I didn't know Mila nearly as well, but she was one of those people whom it's almost impossible not to like, and news of her death came as a shock.

Mila was finishing her last year at Yale Medical, and was set to start her residency as an emergency room physician back here in California. She was struck by a car and killed while crossing the street on the way to her apartment last week.

My last email conversation with Mila was about trauma cases we'd both seen, oddly enough. She was on anesthesiology rotation at the time, which she said mostly involved jealously watching other people sleep.

What a horrendously unfair end for a wonderful, bright young woman who should have had a long and productive medical career ahead of her. It's been a week and still the refrain from Depeche Mode's Blasphemous Rumours runs through my head when I think about it. A sick sense of humor, indeed.

You'll be missed, Mila. The world is without a doubt a worse place without you in it.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Making Progress

The simplex repeater project has been coming along more slowly than I'd hoped. That's been partly due to the difficulty in getting the software-based DTMF decoder working, but I think it's good enough at this point for a beta release at least. But mostly, everything else imaginable keeps getting in the way.

I've got what must be my tenth cold of the season. Charlie brought this one home. Fortunately it's not a bad one, and I haven't been totally out of commission.

I started buying parts for the first production run last Friday. Ran into two problems - first, the flash ICs are being phased out in favor of a new model. It's not the end of the world, since I made sure there were other parts out there with the same pinout that'd work. Trouble is, the new chip doesn't have one particular feature I'm using, and coding around it would take a bit of work. Adapting the code to an entirely different vendor's chip would take a significantly larger amount of work, and it'd probably mean a major rewrite of the SSTV encoder, which uses the same chip. Fortunately I found a good source for the old part, so I've got 500 on the way, due in on Friday.

The next problem was the switch. I designed around a model that I had several examples of on hand, and I was careful to make sure it was available from at least two other vendors. Only I didn't think to check on availability of the caps. Who would have thought that sourcing a stupid plastic cap of the appropriate size would be such an ordeal? I spent two or three hours hunting online and calling vendors. The closest thing I've found is too big to fit in the hole, and I'd rather not throw out a couple hundred custom-made end plates. I think I can modify the holes to widen them by about 1 mm without ruining the finish, though. Might have to move the switch back a bit on the next PCB revision to accommodate the longer cap, but there's tons of space for that.

No major hardware glitches with the PCB so far. The footprint for the flash chips is wrong, but it's close enough to work with a little care. I routed the external squelch input to an I/O pin with no interrupt function, which pretty much kills my power save scheme when operating in that mode, but if you've got an external squelch then you're probably using a mobile rig and have external power anyway. Besides, if you've got any announcement or ID timers enabled it's not going to be in deep power save mode anyway. Worst case, it'll mean 30 days of idle battery life instead of six months.

The prototype pictured above has a laser-printed paper label on it. It was my first attempt, but I think it'll do. I don't want to clutter it up with more text and graphics than necessary. I'll add a page to the manual with a quick reference guide on a strip to cut out and fold up to fit in the battery compartment.

The 10-mil Lexan graphic overlay on the production version will cost nearly as much as the case itself, at least to start with. Still, I think it'll be worth doing, and I'd like to get experience working with the material.

Oh, and after all of the component troubles, I was finally ready to get some work done on Sunday, but there was a fire in the lot of the packing company down the street from my office. It took out power to a good portion of the town, along with cable TV and Internet. Fired up the generator for a bit, but didn't get a lot accomplished.

Charlie's off at Outdoor School this week. I remember my own week there, two decades ago. I hope he has an easier time on the 9-mile ridge hike; the wind must have been blowing 50 miles per hour at the top, and was driving rain and hail on the day I made the hike. I think it was also uphill both ways in those days.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

New Prototype

The new Tracker2fc prototype boards came in late last week, and on Friday I built two of them and got one installed in a sample of a low-cost 5-watt synthesized UHF transceiver module. It's working great so far, aside from some minor mechanical fit issues. And I think maybe I broke the antenna lead on this sample, but the other one had the modem header installed wrong and would need some work to get the board to fit.

This system is the closest I've come to what I envisioned for the T2 a few years ago when I first started thinking about the OpenTRAC protocol and how a tactical SAR tracking system ought to work. A lot of that thinking was done on long walks through the woods at Vandenberg - I can remember where I was on the trail when I decided on certain critical features.

There's still a lot to be done before I can achieve that ideal, but at least it's a step in the right direction. The next big (and rather expensive) step is going to be getting the VHF version going. The vendor is sure they can do it, but I'm doubling their time estimates in my own planning. I might have samples to show at Dayton, but I'm not holding my breath.

I was planning to get some more debugging work done on the T2's support for the Garmin fleet management interface tonight, but when I do too much coding late at night I get wired and can't fall asleep for hours. And when I do sleep, I dream in C code and schematics.

Tomorrow I've got an appointment to check out some commercial spaces in the business park across from the airport. Things are getting too crowded here. One of the units is actually about twice the size of what I was looking for, but it might work after all. FTI needs to find a new office too, and since it looks likely that I'll be doing some consulting work with them on a regular basis for another year or two, sharing a larger place might be a good option - I'll be able to cover both without a lot of running around. FTI needs more office space and I need more warehouse space, so I think it'll work well. And if they leave town when the project is over, I can take over the remaining space or it can be split back into two units again.

I hadn't really planned on getting back into Air Force stuff again, but there's not really anyone else who knows the systems well enough to handle the modernization effort. And besides, there's a lot of satisfaction in knowing that my systems (ok, not solely my systems, but I put more work into them in the last decade than any other three people combined) are getting used on the Shuttle program, and maybe eventually Constellation as well - and knowing that we did on a shoestring budget what Lockheed Martin couldn't do for tens of millions.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Cat Tracking

I've tested out one of the GPS data logger samples already on a trip around town, but I figured it was time to do something more interesting with it. Tory was out shopping and called to see if I needed anything, and since she happened to be right next door to the pet store, I suggested a small harness for the cat.

Turns out they had just the thing, from 'Outward Hound' - made for a small dog, of course, but it looked like it ought to fit. Apparently it's important for dogs to be able to carry cell phones these days.

I put it on Squeaky, and she had it off in under 5 minutes, without ever leaving the front porch. I tried it on Bella next, since she seems to be a considerably dumber cat. For a minute she'd only slink around backwards, but she eventually figured out that she could still move around just fine. She eventually wandered off and took a nap in one of her usual spots. I didn't see her again for a few hours. When she showed up on the balcony I didn't expect that she'd actually gone anywhere, but apparently she travels more widely than we thought. Looks like maybe she has some friends over at the retirement home. I'll have to try tracking her over a longer time span sometime.

Oh, I also got Robot 36 mode working on the SSTV encoder. The RGB to YCbCr conversion turned out to be not so bad after all, with the HCS08's hardware multiplier. The camera module itself continues to be a major source of frustration, thanks to undocumented timeouts and other odd behavior.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Slow Scan TV Gadget

A few months ago, I started thinking about what I wanted to do for my next balloon launch. Getting live pictures back was at the top of my list, but I didn't want to commit expensive ATV gear to the launch and I didn't want to deal with lots of FEC and a high-speed data link to transport JPEGs. That got me thinking about SSTV. It's relatively simple, it degrades gracefully in the presence of noise, and it'd get a picture through fast enough to be useful.

I did some research and found that the Kenwood VC-H1 was pretty much the only compact, stand-alone SSTV device ever made. It was introduced at around $600, and still sells for around $300 on eBay on the rare occasions they come up for sale - they were discontinued some time back.

So I set out to build my own device. The first thing I needed to do was to figure out how the signaling actually worked and see if I could do it on the 8-bit microcontrollers I usually work with. Finding reliable information turned out to be a nightmare. Seems like everyone who's ever worked SSTV has felt compelled to put up their own explanation of how it works, based on everyone else's fragmentary explanations and misinformation.

Just finding exact line timing was nearly impossible. I found a site that showed line times to several decimal places, but it turned out to be the same inaccurate garbage presented in a different form. I finally got in touch with Jim Barber, N7CXI, and found out that he'd presented a paper on the subject at Dayton back in 2000, but hadn't gotten around to publishing it online. Turns out there were some quirks to the Scottie modes I was using that I'd never seen documented elsewhere. Once I had that, generating a test image was easy enough.

The next step was getting an image from a camera. I found a source of suitable digital camera modules - not high-end optical instruments by any means, but good enough and easy to interface, stupid communications glitches notwithstanding. Rather than build everything onto a development board, I started with one of my simplex repeater prototypes. It already had all of the hardware I needed, aside from a serial port.

I grafted the camera and a debugging serial port onto the processor using 30 gauge wire wrap wire, and soon had it dumping frames into flash memory. Getting the timing right to fill up the width of the frame was a little annoying, but I got it, to within a reasonable degree of accuracy. I also added a character generator to use the top 16 lines for text display.

The real challenge was getting it to do everything at once. It's got to start transferring data from the camera, storing that to flash every 256 bytes, reading back a line of data at a time (each line gets scanned 3 times for red, green, and blue), and sending samples to the PWM module every 1/38,400 second. Writing a page to flash takes about 3 milliseconds and it can't read while it's doing that. It also can't do line reads during the sync interval because of the idiotic line sequence in the Scottie modes.

It's some of the ugliest code I've written in recent years, but it works, at least for S1 mode. It's almost there for S2, but the faster scan rate is still causing problems. Once I've tackled that, I'm going to try Robot 36. I'm not looking forward to it -I'll have to convert on the fly from RGB to YCbCr color, with an odd interleaved chrominance subsampling scheme. I've got a few kilobytes to spare for lookup tables, though, and the HCS08 has a hardware multiplier. I'm sure I can come up with something.

Worst case, it'll have to wait for version 2. I'm working on a new design that'll have enough SRAM for a proper frame buffer, with an NTSC/PAL/SECAM decoder for external video input. The same hardware should work for a larger selection of digital camera modules. I'm going to have to learn some VHDL for the CPLD I'm using to tie it all together. Might also make the switch to a 32-bit ARM7TDMI processor. I was planning to use an Atmel part, but NXP has some really nice devices that are considerably faster for about the same price.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Almost Ready

The contract manufacturer sent pictures this morning of the first panels of T2-135, OT2m, and OT1+ SMT boards. Looks like no major problems so far - hopefully I'll have them by next week. I've got a growing stack of orders for the OT2m - I've been able to keep up with T2-135 demand through local production, for the most part, but the OT2m is too complicated to be worth doing here.

We all caught the bug that Tory brought home - she and Charlie stayed home sick today, and I've got the sore throat and cough, but not quite as bad as those two. I'm hoping that I'll be over the worst of it by tomorrow - got too much stuff to try to get done.

I got the USB/Bluetooth GPS data logger samples today that Stephen picked up. He happened to be in Taiwan already, so I had him visit Progin's headquarters in Tainan to talk to them about a new project (not ham radio related, and I'm keeping it under wraps for now) and put in an order for some assorted samples for him to pick up as well.

They're cute little gadgets, and they seem to work well. Haven't got the Bluetooth feature to work with my smart phone yet, but that's probably more the fault of the phone. Used with a laptop they'd be good for APRS, but data logging is what interests me most. The software will output directly to KML format for Google Earth. If they'll do 3D tracks, they should be great for hang glider and paraglider pilots.

Picked up 600-odd OT1+ cases from the print shop today. Now if I can just get the sequenced axial component tapes back in stock, I can build up a stockpile of kits that might last me more than a few days.

A new Tracker2 board layout designed for internal use with a 5-watt data transceiver went out to the board house the other day. With luck, I'll have the boards on hand in time to build one next weekend.

Monday, March 3, 2008

House Hunting

I'd intended to mention this in my first post, but had to run off to swimming practice before I got a chance.

After Tory moved in last year, it was obvious that the old house just wasn't going to be big enough for all of us any more. We'd been renting the place for seven years - about twice as long as I'd expected to be there. The real estate market was at its peak, and we decided we just couldn't justify buying a house. I'm very glad now that we didn't.

So we rented this house, and we'd planned to stay here for at least a few years. The house is big - probably a thousand square feet bigger than any place I've lived before. The master bedroom is huge, the kids' bedrooms are a decent size, and there's room for my office in the converted garage downstairs. There's an extra storage building (built to house a spa, but never did) so I've got room for my lab benches, server rack, helium tanks, dewar, and all that good stuff in the detached garage. I did finally part with Behemoth, my old VAX 6000-510 minicomputer that I'd had in the garage at the old house for so long. It found a new home at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View - maybe some day I'll go visit it.

All was good until a few weeks ago, when the landlady called. The house is owned by a trust - it was inherited by five siblings when their parents died. Apparently two siblings had already sold their shares to one of the brothers, and now another is faced with a big tax bill and wants to sell out as well. The brother agreed, but on the condition that he would buy the one other share as well and own the house outright.

They did give us the option to buy the house, but at a price that would have been more realistic a year ago, when the market was better and we hadn't had 10 months to find all of the little problems with the place - like the electrical conduit for the wiring to the office that wasn't done to anything remotely resembling code and had to be completely replaced when it corroded away. But the brother's willing to take the place as-is, so we're out of here in the next couple of months.

It's a buyer's market right now, but it's still California, and a decent 3-bedroom house anywhere near town is still half a million bucks. We found a place we like just a few blocks away that'd be great - not huge, but big enough, and with both a shop (with plumbing and 220 volt power) and a very clean detached garage. The price is still a stretch, though. At this rate I'm afraid we're going to be renting for a few more years.


I just got my first batch of custom cables in from China today. I have to say I'm very happy with the results. I'll definitely be doing more business with this vendor. They were great about providing drawings and tracking all requested changes. A refreshing change after having my radio cable supplier just entirely give up on trying to understand what I wanted and sending me exactly the same thing as the last order.

I'm reading a book on dealing with Chinese manufacturers, and it warns about exactly this behavior. The new vendor is based in Taiwan, with production facilities on the mainland. I'm sure I could get a slightly better price going directly to the mainland, but sometimes it's worth the added expense of a middle man, especially when there's such a huge language and culture gap.

I'd keep my manufacturing domestic if I could do it even at twice the price, but I can't. Last time I got a quote on over-molded cable assembly from a US company, the setup alone was more than this entire order. There's actually a place in town that makes custom cable assemblies, but I think their prices start at about a hundred times what I'm paying now. To be fair, they mostly work in the nuclear power and aerospace industries.


I got my XO-1 today - the cute little white and green laptop from the much-hyped One Laptop per Child project. I'm not exactly blown away, but it's an interesting piece of hardware. I'd intended to let Allie be the first to try it out; what better way to test the usability of a device made for children than to give it to an 8-year old? After playing around with it a bit myself, I decided that maybe it would be a little too frustrating for her without help.

At the moment, Charlie's got it. He's been begging to try it out since I got it out of the box. I figure it should be much less of a challenge for a reasonably computer literate 12-year old. Sounds like he's either using the oscilloscope function or the recorder right now; I can hear him making noises and strumming his guitar.

The machine's definitely not fast, at least in terms of loading applications. The applications themselves seem to be responsive enough once they get started. The keyboard is just barely usable by adult fingers. The user interface is most definitely not the simple, intuitive system I was expecting from all of the hype.

Charlie just brought it back, apparently tired of trying to get around and find applications. I don't know what he did to it, but it was running very slow for a few minutes. I managed to close a few things and it's running better now. If just loading up several things at once is enough to bring the system to a crawl, I think that's going to be a problem. It's not immediately obvious how to exit from all of the programs.

I tried to close TamTam jam, but it says 'Keep error: all changes will be lost', and gives two options: 'Don't stop' and 'Stop anyway'. Not terribly informative.

The system seems like it's designed by programmers for kids who want to be programmers. I'm all for allowing tinkering, but it's like the highly nerdy and obscure humor in Futurama - great if you can fit it in for those who appreciate it, but only if it can be done without annoying those who don't.

Some day maybe I'll work on some long-range comm hardware for it. Would be kind of cool to come up with a portable HF / amateur satellite email gateway, at least.

Friday, February 29, 2008


My new ARRL card came in. I haven't really kept up my membership consistently, but I suppose it's worth it for QST - especially since there don't seem to be many other ham radio magazines around these days.

I tried to sign Charlie up at the same time, but their online form wouldn't accept 1996 as a valid birth year. It's not like 12 is an unusually young age for a ham - he's been licensed for over a year and a half already, and I was licensed at age 10, too. I'm sure the validation is only on the client side, though, so I'll probably just hack the form and make it accept it. I reported the problem but no one seemed particularly interested.

I emailed the application for the Dayton Hamvention booths last week, and as usual I've had no confirmation, and no one answers my messages. The ARRL, on the other hand, has been emailing and leaving phone messages about advertising in their special Dayton section in QST. I'll probably skip it this year - a 1/24 page ad is more than a month's online advertising budget for me. I'd rather spend the money on a nice eye-catching display for the booth.

It continues to amaze me that Hamvention can pull in millions of dollars and still be such an amateurish production. Their website is straight out of 1997 (and they've refused offers of free web design help), they're difficult to contact, even for those of us shelling out $1,700 for booth space each year, and when things go wrong, no one is accountable. Last year we were without Internet access (that we'd paid in advance for) for half of the show, and it cost us dearly in lost credit card sales.

They were blaming problems on an outside vendor, but they didn't even have the cable run to the booth until a day into the show - they claimed they'd lost the order. I'd specifically paid for wired access because I didn't trust their ability to get wireless working. At least we had working power - the year before, we didn't even have that when we got there. Nor did we have the table drapes that the website had promised - I had to fire up my broadband card and bring up the website before I was able to convince someone that it really did say that. The only compensation they've ever provided was a refund of half of the Internet access charge.

Hamvention will keep on going out of sheer inertia, I'm sure. Everyone comes because it's the biggest thing around, and at least from a vendor's perspective, if you're going to go to one show a year, Dayton's it. But at this rate I don't expect the show to ever get any better. I know a lot of volunteers put in a lot of work, but I really think they'd be better off handing the management over to a paid management service.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

From my phone

Time to see if my idiotic, infuriating Windows smart phone can be put to good use. This thing - a new Samsung model - annoys me to no end. It's a mediocre PDA and a lousy phone. The ergonomics are awful. The user interface is laggy, and while you're typing it has an annoying tendency to randomly jump to the address book. Oh well. I've attached a picture to see if that feature works - it's Allie after she fell asleep in the middle of a homework paper.

So it begins

I don't think I've actually managed to maintain a personal webpage since about 1996. I'm hoping a simple wysiwyg blog will be easier to keep up with - especially when I can update by email.

The week started out badly, with the sewer backing up and both downstairs bathrooms and the laundry room flooding. The carpet got soaked in three places - two of them in the office, and one in the den. The plumber got the problem taken care of in a couple of hours, but cleanup took half a day and we've had fans running ever since, trying to finish the drying process. The whole house smells like wet carpet and carpet cleaner.

Time to take Allie to swimming practice. I'll have to try posting from my cell phone.