Author Archive

Windows 8 Presents Opportunity

Brian Boyko, a freelance IT author, created this informational and rather entertaining video on Windows 8.

The video echos a lot of my experiences, albeit brief ones with Windows 8.  A few weeks ago I attempted to use a Windows 8 Surface tablet at a mall kiosk and left in frustration.  Last week while Christmas shopping I happened to venture into the computer section of a department store and played with a Windows 8 laptop.  After ten minutes of trying to make sense of the Metro interface, I again left in frustration.  I should mention I’m not a computer newbie. I’ve been using computers for over 30 years, and have worked with them in a professional capacity for over 20.  I used Linux before it was sexy and my first GUI based OS was Windows 3.1.  I’ve never owned a piece of Mac hardware (I have an iPad and an iPhone), but if you drop me in an Apple store and put me in front of a Mac, I can be web browsing, viewing pictures, and creating documents in moments.   I just can’t do it with Windows 8.

User interface changes are always stressful to end users.  The last major one Microsoft made was the ribbon bar in Microsoft Office replacing the venerable and admittedly long-in-the-tooth menu bar.  At first I hated it and customized all my Office applications to have the buttons I needed in the quick bar which sits up in the title bar.  Eventually I got used to the ribbon bar, but being a fan of minimalist interfaces I think the quick bar is much more efficient.  But, OK, I admit Microsoft was right with the ribbon bar and it’s a valid step in the evolution of user interfaces.

I won’t repeat everything in Boyko’s video, but he’s absolutely right on all points.  The Windows 8 Metro interface is a massive departure from the old interface.  The revolutionary change would be a good one if it was actually an improvement.  But similar to when Microsoft tried to put a desktop OS on a mobile device (Windows Mobile/CE), now they’re trying to shoehorn a mobile phone and tablet OS on to a PC, and it just doesn’t work.

This video goes into the desktop mode a bit more and shows the discontinuity between Metro and the desktop:

The changes in Windows 8 presents an opportunity for anyone who uses Windows, including amateur radio operators and software authors.  While Windows 8 has a compatibility mode that essentially lets you run legacy apps in a legacy pre-Windows 8 style desktop, it’s problematic.  If Microsoft doesn’t abandon Metro, they’re likely going to push application authors to the Metro interface, perhaps at some point even eliminating the legacy user interface.  With such a revolutionary change to this tool and its steep learning curve, it may be just as easy to migrate to Linux, Mac, or a Chromebook and learn something totally new that is actually going to be productive and useful.  With Windows 8, essentially Microsoft has increased the pain of upgrading to the point where it is equal or less pain to migrate to a different platform.  I suspect many people will horde old or bootleg copies of Windows 7 and XP, storing them away like a rare wine or expensive cigar, for use when getting a new piece of hardware.  It’s going to be interesting.


Why Are You Here?

The Newtown, Connecticut tragedy has naturally been dominating the news and conversation here in the US the past several days.  As happens after any horrific event like this, debates arise over the cause and how we can prevent such atrocities from occurring again.  Similar to previous school tragedies, this recent event involved guns and a troubled soul.  Predictably the media and the public debate homes in on gun control and mental health diagnosis and care.

I had a discussion with several of my amateur radio friends, all advocates of weapon ownership.  I own several weapons myself, though I limit my activities to sporting and don’t really get into personal protection.  One of my friends took the position that we need to equip teachers with weapons to prevent or lessen these now more frequent violent events we’re seeing in schools.  I countered that it’s not practical, besides raising a host of day-to-day safety issues, equipping teachers would require massive amounts of training to really be effective.  Weapons in the hands of the untrained are statistically more dangerous than beneficial, and training needs to go well beyond merely being able to hit a target.  Most people, myself included, just don’t have the time or inclination to get this training and maintain it.  It’s essentially a lifestyle, and one that I don’t care to live.  I don’t want to continually be preparing for the worst and have to carry a weapon in my daily activities.  To me it’s quite honestly a deplorable and depressing existence, one that we shouldn’t have to live in this day and age.

My friend responded that to an extent as an amateur radio operator, I do live that existence, preparing for disaster.  He saw amateur radio as part of a regime of self protection and preparation for bad times, and presumably got his license for just that purpose.  The difference between our perception of amateur radio immediately struck me, to the point that I had difficulty formulating a response.  I’m in amateur radio because I enjoy radio, not because it may help me get through a disaster or combat an enemy.

There is a sort of society that has developed in the US over the past several decades, one of a combination of “preppers”, doomsday-ers, cynicists and political prognosticators.  They have a rather apocalyptic outlook on life, where no one can be trusted, especially the government.  The ills of life can be tracked back to legislation, taxes, freeloaders, or merely those with opposing viewpoints.  These people seem to make it their mission to inject their mantra into day-to-day conversation, whether it’s at work, at church, or even on the air.  You often hear this tuning across the phone portions of our bands.  Often they feel some need to “educate” others, fire up outrage, or just spread their narrative of negativity, a tapestry of plausible but often incorrect quotes and statistics.

I sometimes think of my estranged father who past away two years ago at 62.  He often complained about the course of the country. His death was untimely and unexpected.  I don’t know whether he’s with a creator now, or if such a creator exists, but his death made me aware of the futility of agonizing over bad scenarios when our time here is so limited.  While we certainly want to make this a better place for future generations, does this agonizing over what is possible but not probable serve a purpose?  Looking at this another way, what good is stocking up on guns and ammo if you’re very overweight and you get taken out by a heart attack?

I’m here to enjoy life.  We’re beyond feudal societies, the threat of barbarians invading, and drinking out of lead cups.  The world is not coming to an end, not from this tragedy in Connecticut, not from whether I may have to register my weapons, not because we don’t teach religion in schools, not because I have to pay taxes, not because any particular person is President, not because some state legalized smoking a plant or allows any two adults to marry, and certainly not because someone says Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas.  I don’t want to spend my life as though everything is going to hell in a handbasket or live in continual fear or disdain of some enemy, real or manufactured.  But we seem to have a segment of our society living in this bubble or abyss, determined to pull the rest of us into it.

Why are you here, here on Earth?  Is it to live or just survive?  Perhaps you are concerned about the world, but are you concerned about it for everyone, or just for yourself, your wealth, and your rights?  We have a problem that needs fixed.  Venturing further into the darkness that led to it won’t solve it.  We need to focus on living, and not just survival.


Freeware versus Open Source

Today I was getting caught up on my reading of QST.  I had gotten two issues behind for various reasons, and was browsing the November issue.  In the editorial there was a quote from a popular contest logging program author implying that their software is open source.  I was really puzzled by this as I know for a fact that the software isn’t open source and I re-verified on the web that the source code isn’t freely available and is only given to select people upon request.  This software quite simply isn’t open source, it’s freeware.

There seems to be a lot of confusion within amateur radio over just what is open source,  and I’ve even seen amateurs berate others for wanting open source software because it’s thought someone wants a free lunch or wants to copy a product.  This couldn’t be further from the truth and it really shows an ignorance of the modern software world.  Amateur radio collectively has never really understood or embraced open source, opting for freeware offerings since the days of DOS.   Freeware software authors are often put on a pedestal in the community as selfless contributors doing a great service.  Most have good intentions, but freeware is not necessarily a good thing.

Freeware is not free and is a technological dead end.  Now that I’ve lost half my readers and puzzled the rest, please stick around and I’ll explain.  But first, what is freeware? Freeware is software that you can install without paying any licensing fee.  You can use it all you want and share it with others, but you can’t sell it, reverse engineer it, or modify it.   Freeware is not open source software.  You do not get the source code for freeware.

So how could freeware not be a good thing, or even a great thing?  It’s written by someone, one person or perhaps a team of people, giving their time and energy to a project that they derive no income from and get only satisfaction and accolades for providing a free tool to a group of users.  And, did I mention it’s free?  So, we should really be thanking them and indebted to them, right?  To an extent, yes, but long term they’re doing a disservice to the community.

Freeware “sits” in between commercial and open source software.  It’s my belief that commercial software is more beneficial to amateur radio than freeware.  With commercial software there is a motivation (revenue) to keep the product up to date and functional and not let it whither on the vine like some freeware projects have over the years.  With a commercial product, the desire for revenue drives quality and responsiveness to the user community.  With open source, quality drives usage and community participation.  If the product is popular, but quality later suffers, the community can fork a new initiative to maintain and improve the software based on the original project’s source code.  With open source there is a built-in mechanism to bypass lousy or absent code writers, or unfriendly supporters of software like we’ve sometimes seen in the freeware world.

Development of new features in the freeware world is usually at the whim of one person.  This can also be said of open source software, however because the source is available, anyone with the requisite motivation and skill can modify the code and not involve the original developers at all if needed.  Living within the walled garden of freeware is great until the gardener decides to stop maintaining the flowers. The same could be said of commercial software, but for better or worse money is a great motivator.

Often de facto standards develop around a piece of software.  This isn’t really the case with a logging program, but there’s a least one digital mode and one messaging system that have developed proprietary standards around them.  To interoperate with these standards one has to reverse engineer the standard based on the behavior of the application.  In the case of a messaging system, and one that is centralized, a homogeneous software environment can fall apart when a latent bug rears its ugly head.

So what is the reason for someone to offer freeware and not open source applications?  I’ve often pondered this question and can come to only one conclusion, a desire to someday go commercial with the product.  With open source, the intentions of the author are quite clear and in the open.  When a freeware software author refuses to open source their project for fear of it being copied and a competing product being created, they don’t quite understand that this sometimes happens in the open source world and as mentioned above, is known as a fork.  It usually occurs when someone feels they can do a better job improving the software and meeting the needs of the community.  Forks are often short-lived but in some cases a fork will become more popular than the parent it was spawned from and it becomes the de facto parent project.  This is a risk, but ultimately it’s a better process as it results in a sort of software Darwinism.  Forking is not plagiarism, as long as the original code is attributed to the original authors, and forking is an accepted practice in the open source community.  Nit-picky “armchair programmers” who are often the bane of freeware authors have nothing to complain about with open source as they can improve the software themselves or be put in their place when they discover they’re not really skilled programmers.

Open source enables collaboration.   I had to put considerable time into developing a specific feature on my open source Arduino keyer project.  If I would have had the source for a logging program that implemented this particular protocol, it would have saved me much time in developing this feature, or I could have even written and contributed a module for a logging program to implement the feature rather than having to write what I did for the Arduino in a roundabout way.  Arguably the Internet wouldn’t be what it is today, or perhaps not even exist, without open source software and the collaboration it creates.  Undoubtedly amateur radio has missed out on some collaborative opportunities over the years due to a lack of open source software.

I think it’s time for amateur radio freeware authors to take their commitment to the community a step further, embrace what became popular in the mainstream software development world two decades ago and open source their code for a long term benefit to amateur radio.


Lucky

Last night was a rather sleepless night.  As Larry W2LJ mentioned, the rain wasn’t so bad, but the wind was downright scary.  Up until about midnight I periodically went outside and walked around the house looking for damage, keeping my back and weight to the wind in order to not get pelted in the face or get blown over.  The wind sounded like a freight train coming over the ridge.  I was so glad I put temporary guy lines on the tower.  Other than some siding on corners popping out, there was no permanent damage occurring, however I noticed my HF tribander and 6 meter beam misaligned on the tower.  Under the force of the wind the tribander was beginning to turn and go off azimuth.  I rotated the antennas in an attempt to use the wind to true up the tribander.

About 3 AM I awoke to metal banging against the house.  I got dressed, went outside and found a 10 foot piece of aluminum flashing or trim dangling from the roof eave which shortly fell to the ground.  Other than that, no more damage.  Amazingly we still had electricity.

This morning when I awoke it was still quite windy and blowing the rain sideways, though not as violent as last night.  There was no further damage to the house, but the antennas were more misaligned than before.  So we were lucky here in Pennsylvania, and are thankful for having power and a home.  A lot of people in New York, New Jersey, and to the south and west of us in PA did not fare so well.


Frankenstorm

Here in the US we usually have a “storm of the century” every few years, but this coming week we’re having a “storm of a lifetime”.  Dubbed by the media as “Frankenstorm”, Hurricane Sandy is projected to hit the east coast somewhere between the North Carolina/Virginia border and New York City sometime on Monday.  A few hours ago the models were putting the path right over my QTH, and now they’re projecting the path south of the Radio Artisan lab.  Either way we’re going to get a bunch of rain, probably 6 to 10 inches.  Earlier in the week it was looking like the hurricane would collide with a high pressure system from Canada that would turn it into a monster snowstorm, essentially a “noreaster”  snow hurricane!

So today I’m busy getting gas for the generator, stockpiling water, putting away anything that isn’t tied down, and installing some temporary guy lines on my modest 40 foot tower.  In addition to the generator, I have 150 Ah of solar-charged battery to run rigs.  Since we live in the country we’re pretty well stocked up on food, ammo, and liquor should things get ugly.  The only bad thing is that I work at home, so there’s no excuse to not get to work next week.


Progress

Recently it’s been quiet here on Radio Artisan and I’ve been somewhat absent on AmateurRadio.com.  The usual excuses apply, with work consuming most of my intellectual energy and time.  It’s unfortunate we have to work so hard to live and have some fun.  In this culture we seem to be on an endless treadmill that goes faster and faster, but goes nowhere.  But needless to say I’m still alive and have been actually doing some amateur radio stuff these days.

Daily I receive correspondence about my CW Keyer and Rotator Controller, most of it coming from Europe and Australia.  Originally with the Rotator Controller I just wanted to interface my Yaesu rotator to the computer, but it’s gone beyond the original scope with notes from folks interfacing homebrew rotators and some amateurs with really cool ideas.  I continue to write bug fixes and minor feature updates for the CW Keyer, which now has two parties offering hardware kits.

The main project garnering the most attention right now is the Arduino Antenna Tuner.  It’s going slower than anticipated, but I’m pleased to say I’ve been making some progress with a good portion of the tuning network built, the I2C interface hardware working, and the frequency counter prescaler built on the hardware prototype.  I’m currently working on an SWR bridge and I’m having some issues.  I’ve built a Bruene bridge and a Tandem Match bridge, and both have rather mediocre directivity, in the neighborhood of 12 to 14 dB.

Both of my SWR bridge prototypes are “good enough” to use for software coding and testing, however I want the final product to be better.  Any feedback from anyone with hands-on experience building SWR bridges would be appreciated.  Once I get the hardware prototype to a reasonable level, I can dive into the coding.  Some of this work was completed earlier this year as I wrote some SWR reading and calculation subroutines and some LCD interface code.  I’m really giddy to get coding. Although I really like building stuff I guess I’m more of a software guy than hardware.  I find algorithms, protocols, networking, and interfacing exciting.

I continue to enjoy working with folks, helping them get code working and talk about ideas.  It’s neat to be able to email someone halfway around the world a code snippet and have them load it up on their hardware, use it, and have fun with it.  Although the Internet has made the world seem smaller, and amateur radio is no longer the only way to talk to folks in far off lands, amateur radio adds another dimension to the Internet and vice versa giving us more opportunity to help each other and promote international goodwill.


Show and Tell

This week I conducted a presentation on amateur radio for a neighborhood historical group.  I was a bit nervous going into this as it was my first attempt at explaining our hobby in a presentation to the general public.  For me it’s a challenge to capture the full essence of amateur radio in 45 minutes and not use too much lingo or go off on tangents.  However, the presentation seemed to be pretty well received and I even got some laughs from the audience when talking about things like big antennas in backyards, interference, drinking beer at Field Day, and the 6 meter “magic band.”

This isn’t your grandfather’s amateur radio….

Explaining how radio waves bounce off the ionosphere

After the presentation we had wine, cheese, and various homemade dips and deserts.  I fielded a lot of questions and several folks told me stories about relatives who were shortwave listeners, hams, or radiomen in the war.  A good time was had by all, as they say….



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  • Matt W1MST, Managing Editor