Friday, September 21, 2018

Centenary of first direct wireless contact from UK to Australia

Today marks one hundred years since Ernest Fisk in Wahroonga received the first direct wireless message from Prime Minister "Billy" Hughes in the UK. The transmitter was running 600KW of spark power!

There is a monument at the corner of Cleveland and Stuart Streets marking the location of Fisk's house.

Hundreds of people turned out for the reenactment which included a humorous town crier, and a choir who performed the Welsh and Australian anthem (of the time, ie: God Save The King).

In the nearby St Andrew's Church Hall there was an extensive display of old and new radio gear, and local radio 2HHH had installed studio to cover the day.

Here's a few photos from the event.

All credit to the Hornsby and Districts Amateur Radio Club and Ku-ring-gai Historical Society for a fantastic event.

A visit to the USA

It's a weird time to visit America. The election of a compulsively lying property developer as president has much of the world mystified, let alone the progressives in the US population.

The trip was triggered by the wedding of a dear friend from school who got married for the first time in New York. My daughter is studying at Harvard in Boston near by so we decided to visit her as well.

Watching evening TV by flipping between channels like CNN and Fox News presents the viewer with two strikingly alternative realities both accusing each other of speaking un-truths. It's hard to believe that they are reporting on the same basic events.

Looking out over New York (shown here from the Empire State Building) it's easy to understand the deep shock of the attack on September 11, 2001 caused and how that continues to resonate.

Radio is a superior medium in the US and it was great to listen locally to Podcast favourites WNYC and various PBS affiliates. I listened generally on FM but they talk about HD radio which I couldn't receive.

Often stations suggested asking your smart speaker to play the program and it seems clear that smart speakers are rapidly becoming an important part of people's homes and audio listening habits.

Uber is dramatically cheaper and better than taxis. In Boston, Ubers would turn up within two minutes sometimes and they make it clear they'll start the meter after two minutes if you keep them waiting.

Highlights for me include the Science Museum of Boston which has a Space exhibit on at the moment featuring some moon rock and Neil Armstrong's gloves.

America is truely bilingual with Spanish heard and seen everywhere.

The science museum also has the largest and original Van De Graaff generator. It's the actual one built by Van De Graaff at MIT. We attended an impressive, if rather cheesy, performance that featured large Tesla coils being modulated with sound as part of the show.

An unexpected highlight was the Isabella Sewart Gardner Museum in Boston. This place has an eclectic collection of fine art arranged in a quirky grouping.

The museum suffered a major robbery in 1990 where 13 works were stolen and have never been returned or even been offered for sale. They've left the empty frames in place on the walls.

At Harvard I attended a lecture with my daughter who told me it was "bring you dad to class" day. The class was Data Science and was an introduction to the Python Pandas module. I also went to a "brown bag" talk by a PhD on applications of the block chain for management of the Commons.

Television is packed with ads for medical drugs (complete with alarming lists of possible side effects) and there are many ads from lawyers offering to help you get compensation for side effects. It's no wonder the health system there is so expensive. I value Australia's system very much.

Travelling from Australia to the east coast of the US is a very long journey and it makes me even keener to spend time noodling around in the van rather than undertaking these sorts of trips.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Another review of interest to followers of the Broadcasting to Asia Pacific Review

I've previously posted here about the Australian Government's Review of Australian Broadcasting in the Asia Pacific (now closed for consideration). There is another review coming up by the Department of Foreign Affairs looking for submissions on Soft Power.

These two reviews overlap (in my opinion) in that sharing Australia's view of the world and our values can in large part be done by broadcasting to the world possibly in part over shortwave. Not everyone has Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.

It turns out that the new review will not automatically receive all the submissions put in to the Broadcasting review so if you, like me, put a submission in to that review it would be worth while making a version for the new enquiry and submitting it there.

The Soft Power Review closes on Friday 28 September 2018.

The Facebook group set up by supporters of Australian Broadcasting in Asia and the Pacific is a good place to get more information and make contact with other interested people.

Before ending her time as Australia's foreign minister, Julie Bishop stated that the government did not support the decision to shut down shortwave. After the re-shuffle it might be a good time to lobby both the new ministers and the opposition on this topic.

You can read about Australia's soft power in a recent article by Caitlin Byrne in The Strategist.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Review of $30 rechargeable voice recorder from Banggood

Recently I've been recording phone interviews which are turned in to stories for the GovHack website. The dictation recorder I've been using is an old Sanyo one that takes annoying AAA batteries. I've just bought a low cost, A$30, rechargeable recorder from Banggood.

There's no brand name mentioned anywhere.

It's described as follows:

1. One-Button recording by press REC
2. Three recording modes
3. VAR/VOR system (Voice Activated/operated recording)
4. Recording via high grade built-in microphone
5. Playing back via high quality speaker
6. Recording via external microphone
7. LCD screen with backlight
8. Working as drive free USB flash disk
9. Built-in rechargeable lithium battery
10. Low battery indicating function
11. Display hours and minute (24-hour format)
12. High Quality Recording for 48 Hours / Normal Recording for 60 Hours

Usage is a little cryptic. Here's my notes...

The sliding "power" switch on the side is also a kind of button lock in that the unit can go to sleep while on and then to wake it you press the play button.

The display is very clear and bright. The tiny speaker is amazingly loud.

To start a recording you long press the Rec button until the display says "init". After a few seconds the red record light comes on and recording starts. Yes, it's a bit slow to start recording.

To pause recording you press the pause button. To stop recording you short press the record button again.

Note that the default is HQ recording which is a stereo 48kHz 16 bit WAV recording - so quite large. Via the menu you can switch to record MP3 which they call SP. The audio sounds the same to me but the MP3 file is much smaller.

The microphones are very sensitive and it often clips when recording speech.

Having said that, it's very good at picking up anything said in the room. While recording you can monitor the audio by plugging in headphones.

The device is very light weight and very sensitive to picking up noise from touches to the case.

It has an A and B folder plus a folder for MP3 music. When connected to a computer via USB it mounts as a drive with a Chinese character name that doesn't render well on this mac. I couldn't get it to re-name.

Tap the menu button to roll through the settings:

  • A or B folder selection
  • Record mode SP or HQ (displayed H9) SP is MP3.
  • Voice activated recording on or off
  • Record via internal Mic or Line
  • Playback repeat cycle 
On a menu page, use the fast forward and rewind button to roll through the options and then press Play to select the item.

To delete a recording, move through recordings with the fast forward button until the one you want is displayed. Long press the side Mode button until a trash can is displayed. Press Play to confirm the delete.


For the price, it's excellent value. It seems capable of very good recordings except that the mic sensitivity is too high and it frequently clips for me. The recordings are very intelligible and suitable for transcribing.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

New keyboard chat digital mode FT8Call

The incredible popularity of FT8 has come at the cost of other digital modes. I like chatting keyboard to keyboard with PSK31 or RTTY but at the moment there is almost no activity. Thankfully a new mode that brings the weak signal properties of FT8 together with a more interesting QSO capability has been created by clever KN4CRD and friends. It's called FT8Call.

The software is based on the WSJT-X software, re-jigged for QSOs. There is a discussion group. A Facebook group.

Full documentation is here. Download links for Linux and Windows here. I'm on 20m and beaconing here in Sydney.

There's a little bit of activity visible. It will be interesting to see if this takes off.

Monday, August 13, 2018

New 10W 40m QSX40 from QRP-Labs

I very much enjoyed building the QCX CW transceiver and there have been rumours that QRP-Labs was working on a sideband version. It seems the rumours are true and the kit is being built at a "Youngsters on the air" meeting in South Africa at the moment.

It seems that it's a 10W output kit for 40m (and presumably other bands too) but nothing formally announced or available for sale at this time.

All of this post is now redundant as Hans has posted info here. Can't wait to order one!

-- older comments below --

There's a few comments in the QRP-Labs forum, a tweet, and some clues in the Facebook page of YOTA. I'm very much looking forward to learning more about this kit.

Great that they're testing the build process on a group before launching it. I can wait and would rather build a debugged kit with accurate manual rather than rushing in too soon.

Just spotted this interview with Hans:

There's a lot of information in the video, I've taken notes to make it easier to take in. The new rig features:

  • 10W SSB, AM & FM
  • USB CAT control and Audio
  • USB host for keyboard to use with no-PC PSK31, RTTY & CW (decodes to the display)
  • Iambic CW keyer
  • 40m initially and later 10 band
  • Real time clock (with provision for battery backup)
Hans has worked on this for over 6 months.

Designed a 40m 10W SSB transceiver kit. It will also do AM and FM.

It's an all software defined radio, with no PC necessary. Internally it uses a powerful 32 bit ARM processor. The user interface is quite minimal, just two rotary encoders and four buttons. It’s designed to be used with a standard iPhone/Samsung headphone with mic. There’s an RJ45 mic socket on the back for a Yaesu/Kenwood standard mic.

There’s two USB sockets, one A and one B. You can plug in a USB keyboard which you’ll be able to use with PSK31, RTTY and CW. Decoding will be displayed on screen standalone - again no PC needed for those modes.

If you plug a computer into the USB B socket the rig will appear as a 24 bit sound card so you can use it with a PC for digital modes such as FT8.

Like last year’s QCX, it has built in test and alignment hardware and software.

It’s a high performance radio using a 24 bit A/D converter chip for high dynamic range and a 24 bit D/A on the output of the SDR. The large heatsink is designed to handle continuous digital modes without overheating.

In the next couple of months a plug-in filter board will be designed which will let the rig cover 10 bands from 160m to 10m. (This will include the 60m band).

There will also be an optional extruded aluminium enclosure.

The exact price hasn’t been decided but it’s hoped that the 40m single band version will be about US$75 and the whole thing including the 10 band filter board and enclosure will be about US$150.

There's a thread discussing this enthusiastically on Reddit.

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Windows 10 - still not finished

While my iOS phone is undoubtedly the computing device used most often in my day, when I want to do some serious computing work I use macOS and Linux. There is some software that still only runs on Windows so I have a Windows 10 computer. Windows can be annoying but it's superficially looking much nicer these days, but from time to time cracks appear.

I use "natural scrolling" where the direction of the trackpad or mouse wheel moves the content as if you were scrolling on a touch screen. On Windows 10 I have a Logitech wheel mouse and I wanted to make it work the same as every other mouse here.

First I go to the Mouse settings which looks like this:

Nowhere in there is scroll direction so I click "Additional mouse options" and I'm thrown back into a Windows 95 settings user interface:

Wow! they haven't got around to updating the settings to the new look. This must make it hard for touch screen users. I looked all around here and there is still no way to switch the direction of the scroll wheel.

I found the answer here. Unbelievably, one must get the HID device path, open the registry editor and set 1 as the value of the "FlipFlopWheel" property (after navigating five levels deep in the hierarchy).

A lot of older Windows software runs well under Wine on Linux. That may be the ultimate answer.

LTSpice seems to run just fine on Linux under Wine.

Saturday, August 04, 2018

Another van trip north

I've just returned from a few nights away in northern NSW. On this occasion the driving was shared with another ABC alumni, Peter Cave.

We're not sure if the van is driving better or if it's just that we've got better with the worn gears, but it seems smoother. It's still using a bit of oil and coolant for some reason but is otherwise reliable.

Along the way we dropped in at the Williamtown Fighter World which I can recommend as an excellent display of military planes near the base. From time to time jets fly over and it can be quite a display.

Here's Peter with a type of fighter that once took a shot at him:

There are two large sheds full of planes, trainers, and even some missiles.

And who could resist the attractive observation deck so beautifully promoted in the flyer:

While exiting through the gift shop, I bought this excellent key ring tag for the van:

After Williamtown, we dropped in on another ABC alumni, the venerable Tim Bowden, who was in fine form.

Tim is an experienced camper who has advised me on various aspects of the van. He was more than happy to try it out.

The stay at Dorrigo was again relaxing and entertaining. It's a place that has very high rainfall but at the moment even it looks a bit dry. I'm sure the federal minister for climate change is working on the big dry and planning for our carbon reduction as a top priority of government...

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Built a QCX 20m kit

Inspired by the fascinating talk by Hans Summers I mentioned recently, I ordered a QCX transceiver kit with filter for 20m. Hans criticised the continued use of the obsolete NE602 based QRP transceiver design in the light of more modern and better performing quadrature detectors based on clever programming of the Si5351 clock generator.

QRP Labs, Hans' company has published an excellent paper that accompanies that talk. For US$49 you get amazing value.

The quadrature sampling detector is shown here (reproduced from the paper which is well worth a thorough read). Here's the full circuit.

The board has the surface mount ICs already soldered as you see above and the components are neatly bagged up.

My kit was missing the plastic screws which is no big deal.

My board was revision 4 and unfortunately the assembly manual hasn't been updated yet. The instructions are very clear and detailed. I mis-installed a few resistors, completely my fault, but easy to do. Colour codes are hard to read sometimes.

The most challenging part of the build is the T1 Toroid transformer with 4 windings but Hans has included a diagram from a third party that makes it quite clear.

The software is fantastic with a menu driven system that includes built-in alignment circuitry that is magical! With no antenna connected, test signals are generated and measured with multi-range bar graphs so that the front end band pass filter can be peaked, I-Q balanced, and 90-degree phase shift can be adjusted for high and low frequencies. (Note that these last three interact so you have to rock between them to optimise).

I'm getting about 4W out on 20m with a 13.8V supply.

The RF out stage is three BS170 FETs running in class E and it's amazing to see a few small transistors producing this power without excessive heating.

I enjoyed building this kit, it's great value, but care is needed as it's quite difficult to remove components from the dense board.

Today was the ARNSW home brew group meeting. I passed the QCX around along with the circuit diagram which attracted quite a bit of interest.

Tuning around 20m this afternoon I found the CW decoder works amazingly well. This is a 200Hz bandwidth CW receiver but I'm able to listen to SSB, although it's rather too narrow. I hope QRP-Labs does go on to make an SSB unit based on a similar design.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

A visit to the home of FreeDV and codec2

Arriving in Adelaide after the spectacular Great Ocean Road, David, VK5DGR, was kind enough to invite me to stay with him. I knew I was in the right place when the squid pole supporting a corner dipole came in to view.

I was very keen to see where the "magic" happens concerning the development of the world class low bit rate voice codec2 and FreeDV. While David insists that much of it is done on a couch with an old ThinkPad he does have a nice bedroom setup with some test gear.

Two members of the influential Amateur Radio Experimenters group, Mark, VK5QI and Matt, VK5ZM came for dinner and we had an entertaining chat about balloon telemetry and tracking. Mark brought along one of the radio transmitters harvested from those launched by the BOM.

These folks are known internationally for their work launching balloons and tracking them. It was great to meet. David, has contributed an improvement to the radio modem software that is used to transmit telemetry.

At the moment, David is working on a new mode called 2200 for FreeDV with better quality (and a higher bit rate than 700D) and I was pressed into service doing a field test where we left a test transmission running and drove several kilometres away to receive off air and measure real world errors. We met up with Peter, VK5APR at the park. I haven't seen an Alexloop up close before and was impressed with how well it worked.

The tests went well and it was interesting to see how the spectrum looked flatter on my KX3 than it did on an FT817 (where is slopes down to the right).

David has a much better and more technical blog post on the development and field testing.

Vanlife on the Great Ocean Road

The main attraction of my current trip has been the drive along the Great Ocean Road from about Geelong over towards Adelaide.

The road is spectacular with lovely spots to stop and walk to see views like the one above. There are lots of tourists and apparently they need to be reminded of the road rules quite often.

The van is running well again but I heard a strange clunking sound which I thought was something falling in the back but turned out to be the right front indicator.

I have repaired this with duct tape but will get it fixed on my return. I can see it's been glued up by past owners.

Van tour of ham shacks

In my current van expedition I've been dropping in to a few ham radio friends. On my way south I visited Peter, VK3RV, who I met on the Sunday FreeDV callback. He has a terrific signal from his QTH in Sunbury in to my location in Sydney. He's on a property and has a nice HF antenna setup.

While there we had a contact with New Zealand using the amazing FreeDV 700D mode.

Thanks Peter for the hospitality and fascinating chat.

Monday, July 09, 2018

Van broke down

It's an old van and so far I've replaced the differential, rear bearings, battery and tyres. Yesterday I was rather lost on muddy logging roads with no mobile reception and I noticed that sometimes the van didn't start first time when I turned the key.

Today I stopped at BCF just out of Wagga Wagga and when I turned the key... nothing.

Because it's an old van I decided to join the NRMA and today I took advantage of that with their roadside assist service.

In these Hiace vans the engine is under the passenger seat. The technician seemed ready for a battery replacement but my volt meter showed me that the battery was fine. The starter motor is underneath and a rap with a hammer and it worked! The guy explained that this is a common short term fix but in the end the problem will re-occur.

I've had the starter motor replaced for $380 (with member discount) and I'm pretty happy with that. They fixed it same day but I'm staying over in a motel. Hitting the road again in the morning.

I feel very fortunate to have broken down in a town rather than up a muddy, rarely used track, with no mobile reception. A close call.