Tuesday, December 14, 2021

A Death Foretold (Toshiba)

Eleven years is nearly an eternity for computing hardware.  In my IT glory days, we said that a 3 year old PC was effectively at its end of life.  We tried to budget for a 3-year replacement cycle, but it often stretched to 4 years. The technology zoomed ahead so fast that an older computer would barely run the latest operating system and fancier software applications.

That's easy to say when we're talking about other people's money, but for myself, I try to stretch my investments when I can.

Toshiba L645D
The last laptop computer I acquired was this Toshiba L645D.  In 2010, it was already an economy model selling at a hair under $500.  With its "triple core" AMD processor, you got Windows 7.  Upgraded to dual boot Ubuntu Linux, it served for presentations and other uses for a good 10 years.

Not forever, though.  Recently I brought it out for some reason and found that its battery would not take a charge.  (I was on my second battery.)  OK, new batteries are available for about $25.  I got one, and verified that it would charge up normally, according to the LED indicators.  So I pushed the power button, but apart from a few LED flashes nothing more happened.  No display, no boot.

OK, there's another battery to check.  The "CMOS" battery is a 3-volt lithium cell, like the one that probably lives in your PC.  You have to unbutton your machine and dig for it.  I dug for mine, but it popped up and out and into the internals of the laptop.  Oops.  That means I have to disassemble the machine -- not a simple task.  Fortunately, there are good instructions at ifixit.com for just this system.

I got it apart and found the battery OK, and I was set to put in a new one.  But the battery holder was a flimsy plastic item that I had broken when I removed the old battery.   Yikes!  Amazon had a replacement that seemed compatible, so I ordered it and waited a couple of days.  (10 of them for ~$7.) Removing the old holder and putting in the new one required some semi-precision soldering, but it seemed to go alright.

Reintegrating the laptop parts (a 20+ step process) went not quite as smoothly as the disassembly, but well enough.  I only had one small screw left over.

Alas, the Toshiba did not come to life!  I am now reflecting on why I would put so much time into a system that at best would still be obsolete.

At least I do have a new battery pack and an 11 year old 320 GB SATA hard drive for the junk box.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

On the air with new antenna!

You can see our new 86 ft inverted-V-non-resonant dipole on top the "Whitfield" building at Evergreen Woods, our new QTH.  Fed by 400 ohm ladderline to our 2nd floor apartment at the right, it was a long slog to get installed.  Lots of help from friendly facilities staff, however.  A 4:1 balun connects our ladderline to either the Flex-6500 directly or through a Heathkit SA-2060A Antenna Tuner.

First test shows it's a good 40 M antenna, easily matched with the built-in ATU of the Flex-6500.  Other bands can be a challenge, but the SA-2060A will tune this system over 160 - 6 M -- at least if you're willing to crank those knobs!

My first on-air test was on 80 M with the SA-2060A.  This is a difficult match, because the 86 ft dipole is close to a quarter-wave at 3.6 MHz.  Does it work?  I set it up with WSPR at 5 W transmit power to see what came back.  Partial results of the first few minutes:

Timestamp Call MHz SNR Reporter RGrid km az
2019-11-18 02:36 AA6E 3.570022 -24 HB9TMC JN46lj 6279 55
2019-11-18 02:38 AA6E 3.570021 -24 PA0O JO33hg 5815 48
2019-11-18 02:36 AA6E 3.570022 -24 TF1VHF HP84wl 4091 34
2019-11-18 02:34 AA6E 3.570025 -27 KA7OEI-1 DN31uo 3263 284
2019-11-18 02:34 AA6E 3.570023 -18 VE6JY DO33or 3250 309
2019-11-18 02:38 AA6E 3.570022 -27 KX3DX DM79 2723 276
2019-11-18 02:34 AA6E 3.570022 -25 N6GN/K DN70ll 2697 279
2019-11-18 02:34 AA6E 3.570022 -26 N5SNT EL09wq 2618 249
2019-11-18 02:38 AA6E 3.570018 -25 KI5WA EM11jk 2435 251

So I think we pass.  Best DX is HB9TMC in Switzerland, 2279 km = 3901 miles, with a Kp index of zero suggesting OK propagation..

I had been worried about interference from our building HVAC and other systems. It's there, but so far it's no show-stopper.  My first tests, inside the apartment, were a total disaster, but being 20-25 feet above the roof gets rid of most of it.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Casing the Environment

We have completed our move to Evergreen Woods, at least to the point of unpacking many of our boxes of "stuff".  Time to check out the Electromagnetic Environment. 

It's not all good or all bad. The fact is that we're inside a fairly large complex of 249 apartments and commons buildings.  We are in a rural/suburban setting, but the buildings have complex systems for HVAC, data networks, and power distribution.  So we expect a somewhat challenging RFI situation for HF.  You see one example above.  All the peaks (separation ~106 kHz) seem to come from one source that probably gets here via the AC power line.

I am using a Flex 6500 SDR as an RFI receiver with an EMCO 6502 active loop antenna.  The antenna sits at my new second-floor operating position, not far from some metal objects that probably affect the measurements.  The proposed antenna site is on the roof above the third floor, which is probably (hopefully) a somewhat better location!

Zooming in to get some finer detail, we see three of these peaks in the 40 M band:

A working hypothesis is that these may come from the building elevator system, with the glitches occurring during elevator motion.

This 106 kHz frequency comb is not quite fatal for ham radio, because in most cases you can choose an operating frequency away from the RFI.

There seem to be several sorts of RFI that become visible at various operating frequencies and various times of day.  Some of them are quite broad (no narrow spectral peaks), and some are impulsive, like ignition interference or PLC-type digital signaling.  The Flex 6500 has several noise blanking options that are at least partially effective.

The antenna is probably going to be placed above the flat roof shown below:

A diagonal run of about 100 ft looks possible, using 20 ft masts.

Stay tuned for further developments!

Wednesday, July 03, 2019

Migrating from Branford to North Branford CT

AA6E moving on, see my web site: https://aa6e.net/nw/index.php/13-senior/25-aa6e-in-transition.  The big shack picture is fading into history.

We are thinking about quality instead of quantity here, as far as the ham activity goes.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Beginning of the End for FB

I killed off Google+ last year and started a little tradition.  Today, I've killed off Facebook.  At least, I'm deleting my personal account at FB.

Why would I do that?  Glad you asked!

  • Facebook has a near monopoly position in social media.  Benefiting from the "network effect" ("value" increases as the square of the number of users increases), FB has triumphed over all its competitors in the medium-long-form sharing segment.
  • Monopolies are generally bad.  Anti-trust law evolves much more slowly than technology.
  • Facebook governance is effectively in the hands of one individual, who shows little appreciation for the public interest or the social impact of his company.
  • As a "free" service, users are persuaded to share way too much data with the service, often thinking it's just a matter of keeping up with friends or touting our lifestyles to the world.
  • Facebook makes lots of money by packaging and reselling our data to commercial or political interests.
  • For many users, Facebook is addictive.
  • The Facebook model especially encourages evil forces (read Russia or US ultrapartisans) to influence our political system, spreading rumors and all kinds of divisive false information.
  • Facebook has very little "quality control".  There are weak attempts to suppress pornography,  political abuse, and illegal conduct, but these are not very effective.  For FB, quality control means reduced profits.
  • Apart from the shady business model, Facebook has a serious "signal to noise" problem.  Over time, your friends (and friends of friends) can easily overwhelm your news feed with irrelevant and distracting (to you) material.  As a reader, you have little control over what you see in your news feed.
  • The selection algorithms are obscure to users.  They are meant to keep you engaged and clicking, but not to be useful.  It can be really hard to return to a particular item you remember seeing a few hours ago.
None of these points are particularly original, I know.  But you did ask!

I'm still here on Blogger (another "free" service).  It's part of Google, and Google is another collector and reseller of my data, I know.  Especially when I use Android, Drive, or Maps, or many other services.  I use Twitter, too.  Twitter is short form (mostly), and I seem to be better able to filter what I read.  And there's Amazon, and there's even Reddit, and more.

Saturday, April 06, 2019

Antennas, cheap

We are going to be taking down the ham antennas, because we're moving to a retirement community.  This happens.

On the positive side, our new community is interested in supporting amateur radio (to some extent?), and we may have a chance to develop a new "farm".  See my article on ham radio in retirement communities.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Some AREDN progress

We have been working on bringing up an AREDN mesh network at ARRL HQ and here at AA6E.  AREDN, the Amateur Radio Emergency Data Network, has developed from the HSMM project (High Speed Multimedia, see web sites here and here.)  AREDN supports a "mesh network" running under FCC Part 97 (Amateur Radio) rules on allocated frequencies some of which are close to standard "WiFi" (2.4 and 5 GHz).

Ubiquity Nanostation Loco M5 AREDN node
What is mesh networking?  Simplified, it is a way to interconnect more or less randomly located network nodes that may come and go, such as in response to emergency requirements.  Each node may originate data or may relay data to adjacent nodes. Networking software automatically routes packets by the best paths through the mesh, from source to destination.  Certain mesh nodes may have gateways to other networks, such as the commercial Internet.  Certain nodes may have special servers (web, email, file, etc.) that are made available to the network.  In general, AREDN mesh networks are set up to be independent of commercial communications services as much as practical.

At AA6E and ARRL, we have implemented a test network to learn about AREDN technology and to try out configurations that might support a variety of routine and emergency communications needs.  The first setup uses up to 4 Ubiquiti NanoStation Loco M5 devices with custom AREDN software.  These form a small-scale mesh, currently all within the ARRL Laboratory.

A test bed setup at AA6E uses two of these nodes to demonstrate network capabilities.  Below is a block diagram of the tested network.
The AREDN network is at the right.  One Loco M5 device supports a laptop computer (where I am writing this article).  Through the radio link at 5.9 GHz, the two Locos support a bit stream of up to about 30 Mb/s using a 10 MHz RF channel.  As seen by the laptop, the Loco provides an IP address through its own DHCP server.  Traffic is routed to the second Loco, which in turn supports two VLANs (partitions of a single Ethernet connection).  One is a generic "LAN" connection that will support Ethernet devices like the Raspberry Pi which is acting as a small webserver for our test.  The Pi will also support SSH, VNC, and many other services as needed.

The second switch port supports another VLAN for "WAN" connections, e.g., to the Internet.  Through the Internet router it obtains an address on the household LAN.

L to R: Raspberry Pi 3; Netgear GS105E VLAN-aware switch; Toshiba Laptop

This setup demonstrates many of the functions we would need in an operational network.  We still need to set up facilities for node to node bridging that we would need to build up a larger network, supporting multiple operating bands, etc.

There is nothing "new" here.  It's all been done elsewhere, but we are climbing our learning curve.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Gone Streaming. Sorry, Comcast.

So sorry to hear that the cable TV industry is suffering because of the growing defection to streaming media services.  See this recent Fierce Cable article. We seem to be entering a meltdown, where increasing cable prices encourage more of us to "cut the cable" and go to streaming solutions.  That means that cable companies have to increase their rates, which leads to more defections.

You don't want to be the last one to switch over in a game like this.

We aren't the first by any means, but our sky-high bill finally got to be too much when the last of our introductory discounts disappeared.

Technically, the Comcast service in our area is very good.  Internet performance has inched up over 250 Mb/s.  Unfortunately, the monthly charge is running around $1 per Mb/s.

So we had an abundance of bandwidth and a similar abundance of channels -- most of which we never used.  The Internet bandwidth is sweet when I want to download a new Linux DVD every 6 months, but how much is that really worth?

TL;DR. We have just dropped cable video and phone service and cut back our Internet speed to 60 Mb/s -- quite enough for our small household.  These changes cut our Comcast payment by 70%!

The new system is built on a Netgear CM600 modem, an Asus RT-N66U WiFi router, an Ooma Telo VOIP box, and a Roku streaming device. (Our nice Sony HDTV predates "smart TV".*) In addition, we're watching more over-the-air TV, mainly to get the PBS Newshour live.  (PBS hasn't figured out how to live stream, it appears.) In this location, we need an amplified antenna that mostly works for us indoors, but it will need to be installed outdoors for solid performance.

The thorny issue now is how to make sense of the many streaming services.  People worry about what will be happening without "net neutrality".  The Internet is likely to fragment into walled gardens.  As others have pointed out, this already is happening in the streaming market.  Do I want Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hulu, CBS Now, etc.?  There are several providers for live streaming TV channels, too. Each of these has some interesting content.  Even if I didn't mind paying for all of them, the data management gets to be overwhelming.  There is no simple navigation or program guide I know of that crosses those boundaries.

Brave new world?  Chaos?  All of that. Glad to help the cable industry find its destiny.

* Smart TV: I worry that the "smarts" get obsolete well before the "TV" does.  Integrating them should help simplify the user experience, but the quick obsolescence is a worry.