Saturday, June 15, 2019

Promised HF-6m Discovery TX-500 looks interesting

Just spotted this teaser for a new amateur transceiver. A very compact and rugged design with two surface mount boards and built-in antenna tuner.

I'm not sure about the choice of connectors but I guess they're going for a rugged water resistant exterior.

Personally I'd love to see something along these lines with a single USB port carrying control, audio and IQ but in a way that it can be used standalone or with a computer if available.

No idea on price or performance but from the video it seems to sound pretty good and the display looks excellent.

Like everyone else in the world, I'm waiting for the QRP-Labs QSX.

Better digital shortwave radios on the horizon

A post on the Digital Radio Mondiale page highlights a new radio receiver module from Starwaves that will ship later this year and could pave the way for consumer radios covering LW, MW, SW and FM with DRM and analog reception.

The DRM receivers I've tried so far have had terrible battery life and been high cost. Let's hope a new generation is on the way. I hope you're on to this Tecsun!

Arduino ESP8266 with on board OLED display

Here's a very handy little board for AU$16 from Banggood. They call it a Wemos® NodeMCU wifi for Arduino. It's an ESP8266, which can be programmed using the Arduino tools with an on-board 128x64 0.96 inch OLED display.

The library you need to drive it is here.

The trick is to download that Git repo as a Zip and then in the Arduino software install the library from local Zip.

The documentation for the display driver is there on GitHub if you scroll down.

There are methods for pixel drawing, text drawing, even some high level routines for building a user interface.

Of course, if you haven't already, you'll need the esp8266 board files by following the instructions here. Choose generic esp8266 and on macOS the serial port was SLAB_USBtoUART.

Out of the box the board was programmed with the simple example from that site, which is a pretty impressive display of text in various fonts and graphics. When I tried the example I got nothing.

After some hair pulling and gnashing of teeth, I figured out that SDA and SCL are reversed for this board compared to the examples on GitHub.

This works: SSD1306Wire display(0x3c, SCL, SDA); // reversed!

Having Wifi and a display suggested a simple Wifi network display project. The esp8266 wifi library is documented here.

Another thing to watch for is that the display is really a pixel graphics display so the x,y locations for text must account for the line height of the text.

#include "SSD1306Wire.h"
#include "ESP8266WiFi.h"
// Initialize the OLED display using Arduino Wire:
SSD1306Wire display(0x3c, SCL, SDA); // reversed!

void setup() {
  // Initialising the UI will init the display too.

  display.drawString(0, 0, "Starting.." );

void loop() {
  // clear the display
  int height = 10;
  // WiFi.scanNetworks will return the number of networks found
  int n = WiFi.scanNetworks();
  if (n == 0) {
    display.drawString(0, 0, "no networks found");
  } else {
    for (int i = 0; i < n; ++i) {
      int y = i * height;
      String ssid = WiFi.SSID(i);
      String rssi = String(WiFi.RSSI(i));
      String encryption = "Unknown";
      switch(WiFi.encryptionType(i)) {
        case ENC_TYPE_WEP:
          encryption = "WEP";
        case ENC_TYPE_TKIP:
          encryption = "WPA";
        case ENC_TYPE_CCMP:
          encryption = "WPA2";
        case ENC_TYPE_NONE:
          encryption = "Open";
        case ENC_TYPE_AUTO:
          encryption = "Auto";
          encryption = "Unknown";
      String line = ssid + ": " + rssi + " " + encryption;
      display.drawString(0, y, line);

  // Wait a bit before scanning again


John, VK2ASU, points out that there is a similar board for the ESP32 for even less money here. The ESP32 is the successor to the ESP8266 and offers a faster and dual core CPU along with Bluetooth, Hall effect sensor and temperature sensor.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Chris Winter, 2JJ and Triple J legend, has died

Chris Winter was a legend in Australian radio. I remember listening to 2JJ on skip in Melbourne in the evenings. He had a deep bass voice, a nickname was "three balls", and he could use that voice to great effect.

In my early 20s I visited Sydney and turned up at the 2JJ studio up William street, I didn't meet Chris then but other staff welcomed me and showed me around.

Much later I was working in ABC training and he attended a course on mainframe word-processing on Dec Vax computers. He said he thought I'd be good on radio and invited me to the studio. From there I was a regular guest for a while on Triple J with Stuart Matchett. We remained friends and he was always right up to date with technology and the issues it triggers in society.

The photo above was taken when Rob Garnsey and I visited his home in Bronte in 2016. I saw from some social media posts that he'd been unwell but it's a shock that we lost him.

The last instagram post is from Winter Feast at Dark Mofo in June.

Old days: that hair!

Looks like his Twitter account has stopped. He tweeted a selfie in hospital recently and I asked if he was ok.

Farewell CW.

There was a very well attended celebration of Chris. He was a positive influence on many people.

Saturday, June 08, 2019

Apple developer conference 2019

Over the past week, Apple has held their World Wide Developer’s Conference (WWDC) in San Jose. I’ve attended quite a few times over many years but in recent years I’ve enjoyed watching the live and recorded videos.

There was a time when it was easy to get a ticket, in fact, Apple really had to work to encourage developers to attend. These days there’s a lottery to get in, which is much better than the system they ran for a few years where we all sat re-loading a web page hoping to get to the booking form.

It’s not cheap for me to go in person, US$1,600 plus accomodation and travel from Australia adds up.

Because of the time zone difference, I have sometimes really struggled to stay awake sitting still in a dark room. I remember one year a friend attended but couldn’t sleep at night and so missed the morning sessions all week.

Being at WWDC in person is a wonderful experience. The buz in the room when big announcements are made, being among developers to discuss the implications of new technologies, meeting developers from well known organisations and learning a bit about the technical dept they carry.

The quality of presentations from Apple is the highest in the industry. Some things that stand out:
  • The slides are minimal and clear
  • Presenters speak well, walk back and forth, and hold up counting fingers
  • Demonstrations almost always work (which is saying something on an alpha operating system) certainly compared to this.
Presentations from past events serve as the canonical introduction documentation for many years.

Apple does a good job to encourage random meetings. I’ve had interesting conversations while queuing and they make it easy to be seated at a lunch table with people you haven’t met.

Labs, where you get to ask questions of Apple engineers, are valuable. In the past I’ve gone with crazy ideas of how to overcome something and been convinced not to waste my time. In one case I demonstrated a bug and was encouraged to log it.

This year was very full of new things. Here's a terrific list from Patrick Balestra of Spotify. As others have noted, WWDC announcements are not just the result of a year of work but the culmination of projects which may have taken many years.

Swift, ARKit, SwiftUI and Catalyst are examples of what must be huge projects.

iOS/iPadOS 13 and macOS Catalina seem like good iterations. I think the splitting out of iPadOS isn’t a big deal this year but is a clue to a future diversion from the phone OS. 

Privacy continues to be a differentiator for Apple and I think they’re on a winner. The sign in with Apple system, which generates a random email forwarder seems like a great idea but the fact that Apple mandates it in apps that offer sign in with Google or Facebook came across as heavy handed. While they can’t mandate it on the web, they’ll have to add it if people have signed up on an Apple device, so it will spread naturally.

Craig Federighi’s interview by Federico Viticci on the AppStories podcast was the clearest explanation I’ve heard of Apple’s strategy on the iPad in that they want to keep it easy to use for new users (even people who’ve never used a computer) and yet add deep functionality required by power users over time. It was great to hear Craig acknowledge that Apple reads what intense users such as Federico write about what they want from the platform.

The Accidental Tech Podcast was fun if only to hear the gang’s positive reaction to the MacPro announcement.

John Gruber’s Talk Show podcast also had Craig on this year but, while interesting,  I felt that John was off his game and didn’t take the opportunity he was given to ask some hard questions. I know Apple has sometimes frozen out commentators who are critical but Gruber has a lot of ethical capital built up and could survive. It was charming to hear Craig acknowledge ATP’s John Siracusa.

Traditional media all had their rundowns of the announcements but really there’s not a lot for the general public until the OSs ship later this year.

SwiftUI looks good. A very small amount of easy to read code is matched with a graphical design tool - changes in either are reflected on the other immediately. I’m sure we’ll still be using UIKit and AppKit for a long time but I can see how this new approach could lead to some amazing optimisation of the UI code and I wonder how long it will be before someone makes a version for non-Apple platforms?

I’m still getting through the videos from this year and it’s also triggered some watching of older sessions.

My free app for ham radio users of Weak Signal Propagation Reporter (WSPR), WSPR Watch, gained dynamic type which means it honours the system setting that lets users crank up the size of type everywhere and my commercial macOS application Transcribe Helper is on the way to Touch Bar support. WWDC has stimulated me to tackle some of the existing technology Apple has already released.

I look forward to attending a future conference in a virtual reality space, the pieces are coming together.

Sunday, June 02, 2019

Experiments with OpenWebRX and Airspy HF+

This week I've been experimenting with sharing my Airspy HF+ over the internet using the excellent, open source, OpenWebRX. Here's how 40m looks through a web browser.

I'm running it on a ThinkPad x230 running Ubuntu 19.04. I got the source code from GitHub and followed these instructions to build the app needed to use the Airspy HF+.

I was expecting it to have all the features seen in the KiwiSDR receivers, but that's not the case. There are 147 forks of the original software, which was part of an academic project.

The first thing that users find frustrating with the original version is that you must tune using the mouse to drag the tuning indicator. Because of the long delay (the buffer time is 2 seconds by default) it's difficult to tune in sideband. There is at least one fork with an open pull request that adds keyboard commands to nudge tuning up and down and the KiwiSDR variant also lets you enter frequencies directly.

It's great that there are increasing numbers of web accessible receivers available. In these times of high noise levels in the cities it can be practical to have a contact by transmitting from home and receiving via a remote receiver.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

WIA conference day at Dural

Today the WIA conference moved to the NSW site at Dural. It was a beautiful day and a good crowd was in attendance to see the stalls, feast on the roast dinner (I'm not kidding), and hear a talk from the incoming president and some technical talks.

As you can see on the right, Peter, VK2EMU, has outclassed Stephen, VK2BLQ and I in the home brew headwear department. He was sporting a monogrammed red berét.

Their were many fine displays under sturdy tents with lots to see and ask about. The home brew group had an excellent table as always.

Incoming WIA president, Gary, VK2GPK, gave a rousing speech and then it was on to the first presentation by Rob, VK2DIO on the Allstar system.

Al was brilliant at quelling the enthusiastic crowd when they got a bit rowdy.

I had to slip away before the second presentation but I'm sure the standard was high.

Thanks to the WIA and ARNSW for another very well run day.

Attended the WIA Annual Conference

Today, for the first time, I attended the Wireless Institute of Australia's annual conference in Sydney. (Or "two days in may" as Stephen, VK2BLQ, suggests).

The conference was very professionally run, in a great venue, with excellent facilities and food. I can't speak highly enough of the organisers.

While I primarily signed up to go to the technical sessions, the annual general meeting was surprisingly interesting and even edgy.

The WIA has experienced some turmoil in recent years and the board who run it now are a fresh group and seem to be doing an excellent job under the circumstances. The financial reports and general reports were presented and all seemed well.

Peter Wolfenden, VK3RV, was awarded a beautiful and well deserved medal. (Pictured here with Jen, who I can personally attest makes a wonderful sticky date pudding).

There is some controversy as the WIA last year lost the ACMA contract to run the license exams. This removes a source of funding and there was some soul searching about why this happened. Next, a new organisation representing radio amateurs in Australia has appeared called RASA. The Radio Amateur Society of Australia.

Reading the financial report I noticed that the membership numbers are declining and that decline is accelerating. I've drawn a graph here:

RASA is rumoured to have about 600 members and it's possible that some of those have quit the WIA and joined them.

I asked a question without notice about this decline and if the board had ideas about why it was and what could be done about it.

The answer was a detailed and well presented discussion of the issue but essentially we are facing a problem unless something changes.

On the technical track I attended David Rowe, VK5DGR's excellent update on FreeDV. There was a fantastic demo of the upcoming high quality 2020 mode which for the first time uses machine learning in the speech generation.

The session on Cubesat missions and how one was reactivated after antenna deployment failure by Tony Monger, VK2KZ was fascinating.

The epic VK Microwave Tour by David Minchin, VK5KK, was amazing.

Secrets of KiwiSDR by Jamie Campbell, VK2YCJ, was excellent as well.

I've never seen the hardware, which is a "hat" for a Beaglebone (like a Raspberry Pi).

Jamie demonstrated using the VK2DDS receiver via he also mentioned that KiwiSDR can decode multiple WSPR bands simultaneously but with the addition of a Raspberry Pi it can even decode 8 bands simultaneously.

Tomorrow the conference moves to the regular meeting and Dural and mostly likely I'll have more to report from that.

A great day, very well run.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Election material here in Warringah is overwhelming

I live in Tony Abbott's safe seat of Warringah. Recently I started collecting campaign material that has been turning up in targeted ads on the internet generally and social media sites such as YouTube, Facebook and Instagram. There's a lot that turns up by post too.

The majority of the material is anti-Zali Steggall. A lot of these negative ads don't even mention Tony Abbott so I guess they think that he's a bit of a liability and it's better to go negative and leave it to the voters to hopefully tick his box.

I've had personalised letters from Scott Morrison and John Howard. Here's a collection of things arriving in the letterbox.

It's interesting that Morrison says "I understand that many people in Warringah have strong opinions about your local MP, Tony Abbott".

John Howard's pitch came on rather dated looking letterhead and basically frames Tony as an old mate. Howard has some other mates too, that's not necessarily going to save him.

There's an anti-Zali billboard up on the fence at the school oval - which strikes me as inappropriate.

Zali has sent a few notes and we've had door knockers from her side too who seemed to think that it's going pretty well for her.

A mobile billboard came around one day and it was amusing to see it parked next to a tiny Tony poster.

There has been some mail from Zali.

Clearly there is support in this suburb on both sides and some houses have put up posters, sometimes they face each other.

Most striking have been the unrelenting negative ads I got every time I opened Instagram.

In the end I reported the ad as misleading and that's stopped them for me. The funny thing is that sometimes they left comments on and they're pretty funny as you might imagine. (Click images to enlarge them).

I've been surveyed several times and had a live call from someone who said that Tony had asked him to call to check that they have my support. Yesterday this text message came through.

Interesting that the issue today is a tunnel or not.

Tony Abbott and team are spending serious money here, I guess that means they're genuinely concerned. It's been a very negative campaign on the Liberal side. The drumbeat line saying that a vote for Steggall is a vote for Labour may not work if there's a big swing to Labour.

Friday, May 03, 2019

Prescription glasses for $22? Yep.

Prescription glasses often cost me hundreds of dollars. As I end up buying a few pairs of reading glasses, sometimes sunglasses and a bi-focal or progressive lens it gets very expensive. My eyes change quite a bit every two years.

I feel manipulated during the process. The eye testers are now connected to a retailer and they do what they can to not give me the measurements. They really try to push you to the retailer to buy glasses. I insist though and make sure it's legible.

This year at a supposedly low cost place the sales person showed me a presentation on an iPad that explained that for $100 I could get progressive lenses with a narrow clear area, for an extra $100 I could get that good area wider and for yet another $100 I could get a wider clear area. Given that lenses are all made on a computer controlled grinding machine I asked her to explain why it costs more to get a different curve on the lens?

She could not justify the cost so I just went for bifocals with the lowest density plastic. I carefully noted the IOD (inter ocular distance) she measured so I could order on line.

There are numerous up-sells including amazingly expensive frames, various anti-glare coatings and hardening, but they do give you a little bottle of cleaning spray and a soft cloth. (Here's a tip - get isopropyl alcohol from the hardware store and clean them with that).

I ordered a pair of prescription glasses from Aliexpress and paid just AU$12 including frames and shipping.

The glasses take a few weeks to arrive and they are great. The lenses are correct for my eyes and the frames are good. The density of the lens is better than what I got locally. Interestingly they describe lens index as:

"Lense index is numerical representation of the speed when light enters the transparent medium. Lense index more higher, the lense more thinner. Please choose suitable number based on your own circumstance. And 1.59PC is for impact glasses."

After this initial success I ordered two pairs of reading glasses and I've now ordered a pair of progressive lens glasses which cost $130 but still a fraction of what they would cost locally.

A story in the LA Times recently suggests that we are being conned by the industry "The bottom line: You’re paying a markup on glasses that would make a luxury car dealer blush, with retail costs from start to finish bearing no relation to reality."

There are numerous sellers on Aliexpress and I suggest looking around. I went cheap, but it's probably worth paying a bit more.

Progressive Multifocals too

After the success with single focals I went on and paid $135.50 for a pair of progressive multifocal glasses. These have arrived and are excellent. I have paid $500+ for the equivalent locally in the past.

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

Mac mini failing? Here's a $2 fix

We've used a 2011 Mac mini since it was new and it's been very reliable. In the past the RAM has been upgraded and of course it now has an SSD.

Recently it started playing up, the first symptom was weird colours on screen and vertical colour bars during boot. I ran the built-in hardware test (by booting while holding the D key).

The hardware test had no complaints. (I've seen bad RAM in the past). The clue was that resetting PRAM (parameter RAM) seemed to fix the screen bars briefly. In the end it wouldn't boot at all.

There is a battery to back up the PRAM and I read that the lifespan is about five years. This Mac is now eight years old.

I followed a guide on iFixit and extracted the motherboard, flipped it over, and replaced the battery. It's not the easiest repair job and oddly, the iFixit guide doesn't match my hardware even though the model and date matches. Reading the comments was a help.

Anyhow, here's the battery I replaced.

Now the Mac is working well although unfortunately I can't run macOS Mojave which I need to run Xcode 10.2.

Apple is often criticised for making expensive products but I have to say that features like built-in hardware diagnostics and recovery along with the fact that we've been using this computer for nine years make me think that their products are better value for money and I prefer to think about that rather than simplistic up front price.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Receiving Peter, VK3YE's 100 microwatt WSPR beacon

Prolific ham radio writer, Peter, VK3YE has put up a video about his attenuated WSPR beacon being picked up by a number of stations and happily I'm one of them. I'm VK2TPM by the way and am over 700km from Peter.

Another frequent receiver is Phil, VK7JJ, who gets amazing WSPR reception reports. The trick, of course, is low noise reception. I'm doing pretty well for a suburban block. Phil is on a property in Tasmania and has taken considerable steps to reduce noise.

Ross, VK1UN, makes a good point that with this much attenuation it might be that signal leakage is actually being transmitted rather than what goes through the attenuator.

I think that decodes from directly synthesised WSPR transmitters, as compared with audio modulated SSB transmitters, are easier.

Thanks for the contact Peter!

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

WSPR receive antenna comparison

My normal 40m antenna here is in the back yard hanging between the house and a tree. Operating position is at the front of the house so a long run of co-ax is used. I've tried dipoles at the front of the house but they've always seemed more noisy - presumably because of the power lines in the street.

Yesterday I ran WSPR receive on both antennas and found just how amazingly more noisy the antenna at the front is than the normal one out the back.

The front antenna is reported as VK2TPM/1. As you can see, signal to noise ratio is consistently 13dB worse out the front. Now, these are different receivers but I doubt they would make that much difference. There is also a 3Hz difference in reported frequency.

Keen eyed observers might notice that I'm searching WSPRnet for "vk2tpm*", yes wildcards do work in some contexts. The app here is WSPR Watch.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Home again - after crossing Australia

A very enjoyable adventure. Being away, living in a van, helps me appreciate the comforts of home. This post is a collection of observations on the journey.

I slept in the van for about three out of every four nights.

TVs in motels often don’t have all the available channels. I auto retune them and find more. Perhaps a result of re-stacking?

There are people riding bicycles over the Nullarbor. The road is quite narrow and this seems very dangerous.

I saw two groups of vintage cars being driven. Beautifully restored.

There are large numbers of people towing caravans across Australia.

Nullarbor is Latin for no 4G coverage. Just kidding, it is Latin for no trees.

There are about four parts of the highway which are marked up as Flying Doctor emergency runways. You can pull off to the side if a plane lands.

Signs showing the distance to a service station also show the distance to the following service station so you can make a decision about whether you need to stop. The longest run I did between refuelling was 460km, I think the van would make 500km but I didn't test this.

Oncoming drivers will often raise a finger or make a peace sign, or wave, as you approach. I think it means that if you broke down they’d stop to help. Most truck drivers don’t bother but some trucks are aware of the effect they have on me as we pass and will pull way off to the side as they approach, I give them a friendly wave of thanks.

Google maps is superior to Apple maps in several ways. It has a lot more points of interest, particularly in the outback. Google maps seems to behave better when there’s no data, I guess it caches more. In Google maps, you can drag up from the bottom and do a “search along the route” to find petrol stations for example.

The Google maps search ahead feature makes odd choices about what to display, it shows the brand or name, the number of stars in Google reviews, and that it’s a “quick detour”, it does not show how much time to get there or the kilometres.

Motel rooms have a can of insect spray in the room.

Many small towns have FM stations. Larger ones have relays of ABC Radio National, News Radio and Local Radio. Sometimes the ABC relays are distorted and on one occasion the carrier was there but no audio. In most cases two FM stations are working, the horse racing station and the Christian propaganda station.

Australia is often called a “wide brown land” but my observation is that a lot of it is very red. In some places the earth is red, trees are red and green and the sky is deep blue.

During the trip I listened to some music but many podcasts which entertained and informed me. What a fantastic new media.

Not surprisingly I used up my monthly data allowance and the excess data fee is a high $10 per GB. On Telstra, I can buy data packs at a slightly cheaper rate but they will charge again in the following month. I've now learned that cancelling the data pack in the next month means you only get charged pro-rata which seems fair.

When data is scarce, it’s a new world. iOS lets me choose app by app what can use mobile data and I’ve turned off lots of apps. Free Wifi is very attractive but I’ve found it’s actually limited to 500MB and it’s easy to use this just downloading a few podcasts. Netflix downloads have been great.

I sleep a lot when living in the van. When it gets dark, it’s bed time although I spend hours tuning around on the broadcast band and particularly shortwave. When the sun comes up, I get up, make coffee and hit the road.

Listening to shortwave in a low noise environment, away from power lines, switching power supplies and plasma TVs is amazing.

There isn’t a lot of English on shortwave these days. China Plus is everywhere, a bit of Voice of America and a bit of BBC. I haven’t been able to receive Radio New Zealand International in the west so I guess it’s beamed at the Pacific. I really miss the Radio Australia inland shortwave service.

A shortwave broadcast from India talked about the anniversary of a masacre by the British, they reported the deaths as 1,000. The BBC covered the same story but reported 300 deaths.

China Plus sometimes refers to the “peaceful re-unification of Taiwan”.

My antenna is a dipole cut for 40m. It’s held up by a 6m squid pole tied on to the van. The wire is a figure 8 twin cable fed from the balanced output of my antenna tuner. I tied the ends onto any trees or bushes near by using brickie string.

I drive at about 100km per hour, the van gets much noisier at higher speeds and I think it’s more economical at this speed. Drivers approach at higher speeds and when it’s safe I indicate left and slow a little. After they pass they indicate left and then right briefly, I think this is a way of saying thanks.

The largest cost of the trip was petrol.

Some drivers are slow until there’s an overtaking lane and then they speed up.

There are cellular telephone towers on the Nullarbor but they’re not close enough for continuous coverage. There’s no 4G. When you get to one of these towers they are a sight to behold, the guyed tower is about 100m high and at the base are satellite dishes and solar panels.

Broken down cars can be seen at the side of the road. Recent ones have police tape on them, older ones are missing the tyres and are sometimes burnt out. Most have broken windscreens and I assume they’ve hit a kangaroo.

There are frequent skid marks on the road where a vehicle has hit the brakes. I guess these survive many years.

There are many museums in small towns and it's a great amusement to visit and see what's on show.

The most seen dead animal on the road is a Kangaroo. Signs warn of Kangaroos, cattle, camels and wombats. Leaving Broken Hill, heading west, there are a large number of goats but luckily goats walk away from oncoming cars rather than jumping in to their path.

On the way home I ran into a bit of a heatwave in northern South Australia. As I result I drove more than planned and have arrived a bit early.

I felt calm and happy during the journey. Watching the country change slowly is interesting. Tuning shortwave and the 40m amateur band was an absolute joy without all the noise heard in a city. Thanks to John VK2ASU and Kevin VK2KB for attempting contacts with me on several occasions.

It's good to be home again.