One Wicked Storm in Brampton

It’s certainly turning out to be an interesting year of severe weather.

The intense rain storms last Friday (July 19th) packed serious winds and generated tornado warnings across southern Ontario.

I was commuting back to Brampton when the storm hit while I was at the Port Credit GO station. The winds and rain where sharp, intense, and brief. While the rains were certainly intense, the storm did not stand out for me as being any thing special. I was in for a surprise. When I got home, our local neighbourhood of Fletcher’s Creek took a bit of a wallop. What follows is a plot of the damage that the winds had done in my area. Click on the red dot to see a photo of the damage around the neighbourhood.

Thankfully, no one was hurt. This storm, however, just goes to show you that even in our peaceful corner of the globe, severe events can pop out of nowhere. Folks, familiar yourself with the Environment Canada website, and get yourself a weather radio with SAME warnings. I’ll do a write-up of weather radios in the very near future.

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APRS – Automatic Packet Report System – Tracking without Ma Bell

Most geolocation technologies that industry and consumers use consist of GPS reporting via cell phone data. That means a GPS receiver takes a position and hands it over to a mobile phone modem. The mobile modem in turn will encode the position with an identifier and transmit that information over the mobile network. These units may also permit SMS texting over the same service for two way communication. This technology is great for tracking assets on the move, and it gives the disptach centre an improved situational awareness. This technology, however, depends on cell towers and also Internet connections to get a map, or even the data feed for an inhouse map. What happens if the mobile service is down, or your data feed is disrupted because of the lack of Internet connection? How do you achieve the same situational awareness with your assets and people without the Internet or the mobile network infrastructure?

Automatic Packet Reporting System (APRS)

One way of achieving basic situational awareness without the telecommunications infrastructure is to make use of the Automatic Packet Reporting System (or APRS) from amateur radio. APRS provides a very similar service to that of the commercial solutions, with the exception that the technology makes use of the amateur radio frequencies available, as well as the packet radio (known as AX.25) infrastructure that already exists in many locations. APRS was developed by Bob Bruninga, an amateur radio operator and engineer at the US Naval Academy. APRS makes use of a radio modem, known as a TNC, and like its commercial counterpart, it will take GPS co-ordinates, and the identifier (in this case, a call sign) and transmit the information over FM Radio. APRS, however, have some distinct and unique features that make it very suitable for emergency response.

Telecom Infrastructure Independence

APRS does not depend on the Internet, or on the mobile phone network. That means if you are in an areas that is a communications “dark region”, you can still have geolocation tracking of your people and assets. APRS was built to use the voice channels of standard amateur radios, thus, so long as you have radio contact, you have a geolocation feed. Secondly, APRS is built upon AX.25 – the radio packet technology of amateur radio. AX.25 has routing abilities that allows packets to be sent further along via hopping from radio to radio. Thus, with APRS, if your asset is beyond the range of your reception, but you have a second asset in midpoint to you and your first asset, the middle asset can retransmit the data from the first asset. In amateur radio terms, this is known as digipeating. You can set up your own digipeaters to get the range you require, effectively building your own infrastructure. Third, to render the information on a map does not require the use of Google Maps or any other Internet dependent mapping system. APRS map programs such as UIView, XASTIR, and YAAC, have their own maps cached locally. Thus, when a location transmission comes in, it is plotted on the cached map data and no Internet communication is required.

Open Standard

The APRS protocol is not owned by any one company. It is an open standard that can be implemented by anyone, and as a result, a number of hardware and software solutions have arisen. Radio equipment companies sucha as Kenwood, Yaesu (aka Vertex Standard), and Alinco build radios with built in TNC’s that can handle APRS. Smaller outfits such as Byonics, and Kantronics make specialized units that can mate with existing voice only radios, and sotware such as UIView, XASTIR, and YAAC, provide the mapping function. There also exists software TNCs such as the Linux Soundmodem, or the Windows based AGWPE, so that a computer may send and receive APRS transmissions directly from a radio. APRS information has also been fed into the Internet in the form of the website http://aprs.fi. The open nature of APRS has allowed for various solutions to be developed to be geared towards various applications.

No Recurring Expense

Since APRS does not depend on an Internet service to send or receive geospatial data, there is no cost to use an APRS service. Any costs that are incurred are capital costs with the necessary hardware (computer, TNC, and radio). For organizations under tight budgeting constraints and one time capital funding opportunities, APRS represents a low cost way of building up tracking abilities. The software used is free, and older equipment can be used to reduce the capital cost.

Partnering with Amateur Radio Clubs

Transmitting APRS on the Amateur Band requires that the units have valid callsigns. If you or members of your organization do not have an amateur radio license, but want to make use of APRS for emergency response, you can partner with an Amateur Radio club to help you meet the regulation requirements. Club members can hold valid call signs for you to assign to transmitting units, and club members can assist with the setup and testing of the transmitting units and tracking software.

More Information

Want to know more? Well, you can visit the following sites to help you get a greater understanding of APRS:

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MT63 for you and me!

I’m someone who is involved with the ARES group of the Peel Amateur Radio Club. I am an Assistant Emergency Co-ordinator that handles documentation for the group – which consists mostly of maintaining a MediaWiki instance. This site holds articles and educational material for our ARES group.

At one of our simulated emergency tests last year, one of the problems we ran into was traffic congestion. Packet communication was not possible with the endpoints, thus most traffic passing had to go through traffic nets. The lack of packet was unfortunate, as packet can speed up message passing, but at the same time, you could not guarantee that your communication partners have packet available. With this in mind, I started to wonder if there was a digital mode that could be used that could be easier to deploy than packet in a pinch, and it would work well on VHF/UHF. With a little bit of digging, I came across an incredible digital mode – MT63.

MT63 is a digital mode that uses multiple audio frequencies within the voice band for the particular band you are operating. For example, MT63-2K uses a 2.4 kHz wide band to transmit over VHF and UHF. If you are operating on HF, you can use MT63-500 for a 500 Hz wide band. The most important thing about MT63 is that it has very good noise tolerance. The multi-frequency transmission has data redundancy and code-correction which allows users to permit loose audio coupling of a radio to a computer. Basically, that means that you can type up your message, transmit the message via your computer speakers, hold your radio mic with the PTT depressed for transmission, and the receiving party simply can hold their radio next to the computer mic and decode the transmission. The data rate is much faster that trying to spell out the message verbally. An added bonus, MT63 does not need a TNC, interface cables, or other extraneous items save a radio itself. This kind of simple flexibility can be done ad-hoc through simplex communications, or even through a repeater. If your immediate environment can be noisy, MT63 can cope with background noise which allows for the loose audio coupling.

MT63 is supported by Ham Radio Deluxe, but it really shines when you use MT63 with FL-DIGI and the NBEMS collection of software. FL-DIGI is open source software. It runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux, and it has support for ICS/IMS forms through the use of FL-MSG software. FL-DIGI has no need of external modems, as it can process digital transmissions via the sound card. FL-DIGI can do a whole plethora of digital modes, but MT63 is a great mode to use for your emergency communications.

Want to know more about MT63? Take a look at the FL-DIGI website or take a look at our club’s Wiki page on MT63 to get started!

73,

Joe de VA3POR

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The Beagle Bone Black

Ever wonder what it would be like to have a device that is a cross between an Arduino and a Raspberry Pi (RPi)? Stop wondering because it is already here.

A new micro computer board has arrived called the Beagle Bone Black (BBB). It sports a 1 GHz CPU, GPU, 512 MB Ram, a Linux OS and more GPIO pins than Arduino or RPi combined. The BBB is squarely aimed at the gap between the Arduino and the RPi, and it is a great spot to be in. I had the pleasure of picking one up a few days ago, and I must say, I am very impressed. You see, I was trying to solve a problem where I needed web access to a microcontroller and direct control over the GPIO pins. With Arduino, you need to buy an Ethernet Shield which basically doubles expense and limits the number of pins available. With RPi, I get a nice Linux distro, but the GPIO pins on the RPi are scant and the the web stack on the RPi may looked like it was going to push the RPi too hard. The BBB provides an amazing balance between the simplicity of programming access to the GPIO pins, and a savvy Web capability without the need to a top heavy web services stack. How does the BBB achieve this? The secret is their use of the new and impressive language Node.js.

Node.js is an open source web programming language that is reminiscient of Ruby on Rails. Node.js is essentially Javascript brought server side. The folks behind Node took the Javascript Virtual Machine from Google’s Chrome browser (V8), made it stand alone, and proceeded to build a series of supporting libraries to make Node sing and dance. With Node, you can build fast and optimized web applications without the heaviness of having to run Apache web server with another language like PHP. Because Node is compact and nimble, you can run mulitple instances of Node to serve up multiple instances of your web app across a cluster of servers which allows you to scale your web app up and out.

The folks behind the BBB saw the virtue of Node and wisely made it the primary programming language for the BBB. But the smarts didn’t stop there. The BBB designers also realized that the Arduino’s virtue was simplicity and hardware extendability by the use of well placed GPIO pins. So the designers of the BBB arranged the GPIO pins on the BBB top and bottom like the Arduino and doubled up on them! The BBB has ADC, DAC, UART, SPI, I2C, and TTL functionality. There is a total of 65 pins that are programmible – far more than the Arduino or the RPi. When you look at the Javascript used to program the pins, it looks very much like the Arduino C like code – so people used to programming the Arduino should have no trouble making the jump. The programming environment itself is another area that shines. With the Arduino, you download the basic IDE software onto your computer, write your code, then write the code to the Arduino via the USB. With the RPi, you need to use one of the more general purpose toolchains like Python to access the GPIO pins. There is no IDE, lest you load some IDE onto your computer or RPi. While the ability to use these standard tools is great, it can be quite a learning curve for people starting off, many who like Arduino’s simplicity would be turned off by the RPi. Not so with the Linux powered BBB. The BBB comes with Cloud9 – a web based IDE written in Node.js and it is up and running on the BBB by default. That means you do all of your programming on the BBB itself by simply using your browser! The BBB pulls a neat trick, by creating an IP connection via its USB port! When you plug in the BBB to your computer, an IP address of 192,168.7.2 is available and you open your browser to that URL. You are greeted with a professional looking website (all running on the BBB) with all the material you need to get running. The Cloud9 interface does code completion, code colouring, and allows you to designate which programs run at start up. All in all, the BBB to me, had the best initial user experience in comparison to the Arduino or the RPi, allowing you get up and running quickly with minimal fuss. All you need is your computer, and the USB cable is supplied. As a final nod to the homerbrew/hacker/maker customers that the BBB is meant to appeal to – the BBB has curved corners that will allow it to fit into an Altoids tin!

The BBB has become my new favourite microcontroller board. It’s clear that the Beagle Bone designers have put a lot of thought into the design and capabilities of the BBB. I believe that this board will become the new standard that other microcontroller projects will want to mimic, if not surpass. Linux power with Arduino simplicity, expandibility and super web smarts for just over $50 Canadian. What’s not to like?

Want to know more? Head on over to the Beagle Bone site here.

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GNU Radio + Realtek Satellite DVB Dongles – an amazing scanner on the cheap

Hello Gang.

Yes, I’ve been absent on the scene for a number of months, and I must apologize. Let me help make that up to you with a really amazing project that I started experimenting with.

Some of you hams out there may have already started to experiment with software defined radio (SDR). This is where much of the demodulation and filtering is performed with mathematical computation such as Fast Fourier Transforms using a vector based processor – like that of your soundcard. Many have built kits, or purchased the more expensive FlexRadio systems which comes with the amazing PowerSDR software. Well, a string of events came together for me that allowed me to do something really cool – build my own SDR system with open-source software and a $35 USB satellite receiver dongle. Here’s how that came about.

The Fun Cube, and the enterprising Italian!

At some point two years ago, I stumbled across the FunCube. A gentleman in Germany was using this interesting USB dongle with an RF input to hook into a VHF antenna, and this ham was picking up images using weather satellites. It was pretty cool! The FunCube has this cool software that you could use to tune the various stages and tweak settings. Our club was looking for ways to improve reception of satellite signals for future Field Day setups and this looked like a neat device to do that with. I posted the Youtube video link to our Yahoo user group, and before I knew it, one of our club members went out and bought it! It’s a pricey little device, but there is a company behind it and the tuning software is both very cool, and very useful.

That purchased inspired another member of our club to go hunting for a cheaper alternative. Before long, this enterprising Italian found a European USB dongle used for satellite reception that was hacked to do all sorts of neat things. This dongle used the Realtek R2332 receiver chip that had an amazing reception range starting from 54 MHz to as high as 2GHz! What’s even more incredible, was that this chip could be programmed to receive AM, FM, SSB, DSB, VSB and more! Even better still, was that this dongle was capable of send I and Q signals – a common way to stream radio for processing. Best of all, the dongle was $35! Armed with this cheap and capable dongle, our enterprising Italian handed me this wonderdongle and asked if I could get it working and see if I could get it running on Linux. I accepted the challenge, the dongle, and the spare laptop handed to me.

A tortured path

I went to work, first wanting to do a simple test of the dongle, to insure that the device worked, I came across the OSMO driver for the Realtek device, iinstalled it on Ubuntu, but I couldn’t get some decent results. The dongle didn’t seem to respond to the drivers that I installed. After some fruitless searching for answers, I decided to try the device on a Windows setup as some folks had the dongle working on Windows SDR. I picked a quiet evening and after about an hour, I had the dongle receiving broadcast FM. It wasn’t that good, but I could make out the station. At least, I knew the dongle worked. I put the dongle down and decided to look at a Linux setup at a later time.

Wisdom Of The Crowd

A few months ago, at a Homebrew meeting – one of our longtime members had mentioned a neat trip he had taken to Arizona, and his visit to TAPR. He mentioned a very powerful open source SDR solution called GNURadio. He had said that the folks at TAPR were doing some very advanced work with it, and that it was something that the club may want to look into. I heard of GNURadio before, but I could never get my head around what it was about. I decided to take another look, again looking at a Youtube video of GNURadio being used, and I was just floored. GNURadio is indeed very powerful. It is a programming framework that allowed you to build your own custom SDR solutions. GNURadio is built on Python with some C/C++ blended in for the for the heavy lifting. Recently, GNURadio added gnuradio-companion, a drag and drop GUI that allowed you to bring in blocks of functionality and string them together to build a radio system. If you knew how a radio system worked at a functional block level, you could use GNURadio to build whatever you wanted. There are blocks for signal sources and sinks. There are blocks for FM modulation/demodulation, AM modulation/demodulation, a phased-locked loop, a waterfall display, fast-fourier transform, and many more! It suddenly dawned on me that a functional source block could exist for the dongle handed to me! A quick search on Google verified that this was indeed the case! I decided to take the GNURadio plunge.

A long build

I had my own Ubuntu desktop that was relatively up-to-date, so I decided to install GNU-Radio on it first. I downloaded the install script from the GNURadio project and let it work its magic. The script ran for hours! It downloaded package after package, library after library and steadily chewed away at a massive series of compiles. I had to leave the computer running overnight. When I work up next day and check on the computer, the installation had finally completed, and without any errors! I had to get on with my day and decided that I would continue on in the evening.

I got back to my GNURadio install and managed to launch gnuradio-companion. Ok great! Now what? I figured that I should search and download an existing GNURadio block diagram for a FM receiver to be used with the dongle. I found one, opened it in GNURadio, but I got a bunch of errors and I couldn’t tell of the dongle has the proper driver. So, I decided to try out some very basic things to get my head around GNURadio.

Baby Steps

The first thing I wanted to do was figure would the sink/source bit and how it came together. I came across a dial-tone generator that consisted of a very simple series of blocks. I managed to get the dial tone working on my computer and thus know what settings I needed on the sink block for the sound card. With that done, I decided to revisit the FM demod project and take a closer look. There where a number of elements that I did not recognize, so I decided to build my own FM demodulator with the least number of blocks necessary. I came across a single block – Wide Band FM Demodulation. I took that block and strung it to my soundcard sink block. From there, I decided to simply add the OSMO source that represented the USB dongle and string that to the WBFM demod block. So far, no errors. I went ahead and started the project. Static! I added a FFT view of my simple block, and found that I was indeed getting a peak at the expected carrier frequency. I went back to the larger FM demod project and gleaned the settings for audio decimation and gain. After making the adjustments, I ran the project again, and this time I could hear a human voice! I was really excited now, so I started to systematically adjusting gain and decimation settings till finally I got a nice, clear signal of the local classical music station! Triumph!

Adding Pizzazz!

I was really proud and excited that I got the dongle working with great sound coming out of my GNURadio setup! I decided to press ahead with some of the design criteria that our enterprising Italian asked for. In about an hour, I added GUI elements such as radio buttons to represent local FM stations, and a waterfall to see the frequency distribution.

Sharing the Excitement

With a GNURadio setup working, I had to share my results with the club. I grabbed my HD camcorder and recorder a short intro to GNURadio and the system block that I built up. I uploaded the video to Youtube and posted the link to our Homebrew usergroup. The guys loved it! Within short order, another member had purchased two dongles of his own, and got his GNURadio setup running. A second member was in the process of getting his GNURadio setup running as well. The following month, I presented the same FM project live to the Homebrew group on the laptop and dongle that our enterprising Italian had handed me. The equipment was handed back to it’s rightful onwer.

Just the Beginning

It turns out that our enterprising Italian was not done with me just quite yet. He ran into some issues right away, and he also wanted more features added. Before I knew it, the dongle and laptop were back in my hands that night! No matter. Accepting the challenge the first time was a great experience. It opened my eyes to a great project, pushed me to learn more, and gave me an opportunity to give back to the guys who gave me so much! So, my little SDR excursion is turning out to be a long and winding road, one I intend to share here and with others. I’ve always liked going on trips. 🙂

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New Linux Radio Net – PARC TUXNET

My apologies to all for a long hiatus from writing articles on my blog. It has been a very busy few months – becoming an uncle, flying to the Philippines, and my participation with the Peel Amateur Radio Club (PARC), becoming a much larger time commitment.

Part of that expanding time commitment is the launch of a new amateur radio net – PARC TUXNET. A few weeks ago, one of the members of our club and active member of or Linux special interest group (SIG), Mike (VA3SOP) came up with the brilliant idea of having a weekly Linux net on the club’s repeater (VE3PRC). I jumped at the idea, and within short order, PARC TUXNET was born.

PARC TUXNET is a net about Linux, free and open source software, and their uses in amateur radio. This net happens every Thursday night at 8:00pm EST on a frequency of 146.880MHz with negative offset. The repeater has a range of pretty much the whole GTA (Greater Toronto Area) – as far west as Hamilton, as far East as Pickering, and as far north as Grand Valley. Some of our American friends from across the lake have also been able to tune in.

So, if you are within our broadcast region, and have a radio capable of 146.880 Mhz reception, then tune in to the PARC TUXNET!

73,

Joe de VA3POR

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Ham Nation from TWiT TV

A good number of people who are into technology, know of TWiT TV. Headed by Leo Laporte (of “The Screen Savers” fame), it has grown into a robust podcast network covering all sorts of subjects in science and technology. Leo personally does the “Call for Help” podcast and “Security Now” with Steve Gibson (one of my favourites). I’ve always enjoyed listening to these podcasts supplement my knowledge and keep abreast on the goings on in the tech world.

Indeed, with Leo’s fantastic on air personality, I wondered “wouldn’t it be great if Leo did something about amateur radio”. Well, sure enough, as if Leo read my mind, the podcast “Ham Nation” was launched. Hosted by audio expert (Heil Sound) and longtime ham operator Bob Heil (K9EID), this new podcast is geared towards all things amateur radio. In the short life of the podcast so far, Leo Laporte has acquired his operating license, build an impressive ham station at TWiT headquarters, brought in folks like Joe Walsh from the Eagles (an active ham, good friend of Bob Heil, and composer of the Ham Nation theme), the presdient of TAPR, an interview with Martin Jue, president of MFJ, and senior reps from the ARRL and Icom corporation. Co-hosting with Bob Heil is Gordon West (WB6NOA) who goes by the nickname “Gordo” and George Thomas (W5JDX) who heads up the “Smoke and Solder” segment of the show.

This is a great resource for people getting started in ham radio and I encourage anyone to check out their podcasts at the following site: www.twit.tv/hn.

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Getting Started in Amateur Radio

Last year, I decided to become involved in the hobby of Amateur radio, and to start volunteering my time to the local amateur radio club.  It was a decision that has resulted in a tremendous learning experience, a way of meeting new people, and a means of giving back to the community in which I live.  You may be reading this article, thinking about joining this old hobby and tradition of tinkering, building, and volunteering.  You probably have many questions about what’s involved, what you can and cannot do, and the different modes and technologies that exist with amateur radio.  Having recently acquired my Basic operating ticket (and earning my callsign of VA3POR), allow me to share with you the road I took to becoming an amateur radio operator.

First off, the Internet is a great way to pull together information on how to become a licensed amateur radio operator (commonly referred to as hams).  It is important to realize, that to TRANSMIT, you must be licensed.  No if, ands, or buts.  The authorities that oversee the amateur radio service (Industry Canada in Canada, the FCC in the US) take a very dim view of unauthorized communications on license only bands.  That being said, when you get your license, you are privy to a wide spectrum of modes – analog and digital.  But again, you still may not be sure that you want to persue this, and that you need the opportunity to see what ham radio is all about.  There are ways to get a feel for the hobby without having to be licensed first, and thus make an intelligent decision on whether to undertake this unique hobby.  So, here are some things that you can do to get a feel for amateur radio.

Internet Resources
If you live in Canada, then visit the Radio Amateurs of Canada website www.rac.ca.  This body of amateur radio operators has many resources about the hobby and what’s involved.  If you are from the US, then visit ARRL – a very detailed and rich site on all aspects of amateur radio.  Another great source is YouTube.  Here, you can see people operating equipment, using their computers and radios in digital modes, and get a “first hand” feel for whats involved.

Field Day
Many of the local Amateur Radio clubs have what are called ARES sections.  ARES – the Amateur Radio Emergency Service, is a group of amateur radio operators that train and participate in exercises that prepare them to assist their communities during times of emergency.  Field Day is a massive exercise that amateur radio operators in different regions around the world set up in the middle of an open field, and operate their equipment on battery power for a 24 hr period.  One of the stations is what is called a “Get On the Air” station.  This station takes on the call sign of an amateur radio who was not licensed the year before (a contest requirement).  Yours truly will be a GOTA station with my call sign (VA3POR).  GOTA stations allow anyone in the general public to get on the air for the first time, and try to make contacts with people on the air.  If you are interested, follow me on Twitter, or visit the www.peelarc.org site for announcements on Field Day, which is slated for June 25th – 26th of 2011.

Listening

The licensing requirement is for TRANSMIT only (unless you are using GOTA, or you have a licensed ham allow you to operate his/her radio).  You can, however, use a scanner to listen to amateur radio stations on all it’s bands, and also start receiving digital transmissions.  This was something that I did to really whet the appetite for getting into ham radio.  After seeing some of the things one could do with a radio and a computer, I purchased a handheld scanner (Yaesu VR-500) and a telescoping antenna (MFJ-1314 – 2 metre). Using a computer’s sound card, an audio cable, and the handheld scanner, I was able to receive all sorts of digital transmissions and get a feel for operating digitally.  This kind of setup is a great exercise in becoming familiar with the practical ideas involved without having to worry about licensing.

Local Amateur Radio Clubs
The local clubs are a fantastic source of information.  Here, you get to meet individuals that are highly experienced, and are more than willing to answer any questions you may have about the hobby.  When you feel that you want to acquire your license, the clubs usually have courses to assist people in acquiring their operating ticket.  This is what I have done ultimately.  You can visit the RAC website www.rac.ca to see which clubs exist in your area.  Those within the West GTA (Greater Toronto Area) may wish to consider the Peel Amateur Radio Club at www.peelarc.org.

Amateur Radio is a rich field of exploration.  It engages the technical mind and appeals to the sense of civic service.  It has traditions and practices that span generations, but yet experiments with modern ideas and technology.  There a few hobbies that possess such a unique set of properties.  I encourage anyone reading this to take the time to know what amateur radio is about, and to understand why it’s such a great pursuit.

 

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Why Amateur Radio – Part II

In part one of the series “Why Amateur Radio?”, I discussed the public service aspect of the amateur radio service. In this article I will explore the technical aspect of amateur radio, and it’s appeal to those with a technical inclination.

Amateur Radio not only has an important public service aspect, but it also provides the participants a rich opportunity of experimentation. The regulations of the amateur radio service creates a framework where licensed amateurs may use communications equipment in prescribed frequency bands and permit experimentation within those bands. Those who attain an advanced license are permitted to build equipment from scratch, and press this custom equipment into service. The result of this framework (found in many countries) has resulted in a wide array of equipment and modes of operation across the frequency spectrum. Amateur Radio now encompases digital transmissions, both point to point and packetized. GPS and digital transmission have been married together to create APRS. Packetized voice, voice over IP, and and robust digital transmission modes for extreme conditions have all developed out of the work of amateurs.

Indeed, many of the wireless modes used in current wireless equipment was developed by amateur radio enthusiasts. One classic example is Single Sideband or SSB. This technology, which projects most of the power into the intelligence potion of a signal in AM allowed for long range and lower power. This technology allowed the US in World War II to place amateur radio equipment into ocean crossing bombers and provide continuous communications from take-off, to target, and back again. More recently, robust digital transmission modes, such as JT65, are being used by the US military for it’s ability to overcome noise.  JT65 has the amazing ability to transmit digital information below the noise threshold!

All of the foundational technologies that are currently present in the latest handsets, are found in amateur radio. It is no mistake that many of the engineers who developed the wireless portions of handsets are themselves amateur radio operators, and that they cut their teeth on amateur radio projects.

The homebrew groups that exist within the amateur radio clubs are tremendous sources of self-education in the areas of electronics, RF engineering, antenna design, computer programming, and micro-controller development. Anyone wanting to make a career in these and like fields can gain hands on experience with patient and wise mentors with the homebrew groups.

Even though amateur radio has been around a long time – the public service dimension and the self-development opportunities it provides are in need today, more than ever. As society becomes more complex, the ad-hoc and portable nature of amateur radio skills make it ideal to assist in various crises and to quickly re-establish both voice and data communication. The open and collaborative nature of amateur radio allows the dissemination and democratization of specialized knowledge, and helps to insure the existence of skilled individuals in both public service and in industry. The engagement of the amateur radio service and it’s practitioners with society at large, create a virtuous cycle, that sees benefits flowing both ways. It is with this in mind that the practitioners of amateur radio, the public at large, and our leaders need to be reminded of, in order to help preserve and promote this incredible endeavour.

 

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Why Use The Linux Operating System?

By now, everyone has used, or benefited from the use of the Linux operating system.  It is found in everyday appliances in the home, to supercomputers that advance the study of protein folding in cancer research.  It’s kernel drives both the Android tablet, and Google’s massive search engine network.  Linux, with open source projects like Apache, PHP, and MySQL power a sizable chunk of the Web.  With all of this pervasiveness, why is it that we don’t see more of it on our everyday desktops?

There are many answers to that question.  Part of it is the incumbent dominance of Microsoft Windows.  Part of it is the numerous flavours of Linux, thus what does one choose amongst the sea of variants?  Part of it is the availability of applications.  The biggest barrier I see is human inertia.  People, as any other object, like to be doing what they are already doing.  People have busy lives, they just want to use their computers like one uses a hammer or screwdriver – it’s just a tool.  Why fiddle with them?  Indeed, computing is going through a whole revolution of trying to take computers and make them as easy as possible to use – intuitive as opposed to having to be conscious of what it is you are doing.  Apple Chairmain – Steve Jobs, looks at a computer and see’s it like a bicycle – a bicycle makes human locomotion more efficient.  Computers, according to Jobs,  should be the same.  This philosophy drives his expectations of Apple’s design of products.  It dictates the look and feel of the hardware as well as the software.  The need to control the elements extend to the very specifics of the hardware, as well as the licensing restrictions placed on OSX distribution (there is no distribution beyond Apple).  The results are clearly seen.  Beautiful hardware and easy to use software – so easy to use in fact that it really makes computers into a consumer appliance – no different from a cell phone, a toaster, etc, etc.  To be sure, you can certainly be creative with an Apple computer – photography, graphics design, computer programming, desktop publishing, etc, etc.

Apple products certainly get out of the way the user for everyday use.  For those who like to explore, tinker, and hack, the tightly sculpted system can feel rather restrictive.  Exploring the facilities and capabilities of a system through play and experimentation can be a refreshing change from just typing out a letter, or slapping together another music album for listening.  For those who want a challenge, and also for those who want to discover many of the ideas of computing in an open and unrestrictive way, I suggest that you look at Linux.

The Linux Operating system follows a design philosophy of modularity, and a social philosophy of openness and community.  The modularity aspect comes in the idea that you create a software solution that does one thing and one thing well – and you marshal the different elements together through scripting or using a user interface layer.  This makes the Linux operating system have a noticeable “toolbox” feel to it.  You can issue a command using the command line console to spell check a text file, or you spell check your text in a graphically based text editor which just happens to use the same command you use on the command line.  This kind of modularity allows the computer user to automate tasks in any combination desired.  The modularity of the system encourages and lends itself to a user becoming a system programmer, a designer of your own solutions.

The social philosophy of openness and community are designed to make Linux exist and evolve primarily at the hands of it’s users.  The openness allows anyone to tinker, hack, and innovate on and within the system.  Liberal software licenses such as the GPL and Apache license keep source code open for professional programmers and tinkerers alike.  In Linux, changes and innovations to its code can come from anyone and from anywhere.  The code is shared, peer reviewed, tested, and documented in an open fashion.   There are companies that do work on and support Linux, but the software licensing insures that you have access to the code, should you, or a software developer you hire, needs to make changes for your own purposes.

So why should you use Linux?  Simple, it’s good for you, and your community.  It’s good for you as you will learn how to be a knowledgeable computer user as Linux is both open, and yet providing challenge.  Why play the “memory enhancement games” and “brain enhancement” games on a Mac, where you can learn and explore computing for free with Linux – and get practical knowledge with superior mental stimulation in the process (I liken this situation to the physically active, who take the elevator in order to get to the gym “Stairmaster”) .  Why let your school board spend considerable sums of money on software licensing, when they could be using Linux without licensing cost (and use the saved money for actual support), and give your kids the CD – legally – so that they could submit their homework using freely generated PDF’s and internationally approved document formats?

In this age of globalization, off-shoring, budget-cutting, and pay for everything you use, it seems at times that the whole system of convenience and instant gratification in our modern living is designed to suck us dry of every hard earned penny we earn.  Linux – with it’s openness, community of professional programmers and volunteers, zero acquisition cost, and unmatched scalability, creates a virtuous cycle.  The virtuous cycle of knowledge moving up and down, of using, sharing, and contribution – all the while, creating the next generation of programmers, system designers, and competent computer users. Linux is not beholden to a single shareholder, a single vision, a single philosophical limit.  Life is evolving faster than ever, we need tools and systems that can evolve just as quick.  Linux moves at the speed of it’s users lives – at all scales.

 

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