Tuesday Jan 11, 2005

RTTY Roundup Results

We came, we typed, we conquered.

Another ARRL RTTY Roundup contest is behind us. Here's a recap of the activities at the W5VZF station this year.

Antennas were the biggest change this year. In previous years, we used a dual band 40m/80m dipole. The trouble with that sort of antenna is that it is kinda hard to get it to work well on both 40m and 80m. Tuning is a pain because there is always a little bit of interaction between the two bands. If you get it perfect for one band, you suffer on the other. This year we added a M-squared 40M1L rotatable dipole for 40m. We also built a new 80m dipole and raised the ends so that it is very nearly horizontal at about 70 feet. This combination worked very well and we were able to make quite a few good runs on 40m and 80m. We also cleaned out the mud dobber nests in the triband capacitors as well as cleane it up so that it was in tip-top condition.

New software was also used. It actually isn't new, but we've been using WF1B's contesting software for about 13-14 years or so. This year we switched to WriteLog and MMTTY. I've been using WriteLog and MMTTY on and off for several years, except for the RTTY Roundup. W5VZF got a shiny new computer for Christmas, and we went whole hog. This is truly excellent software and is quite a time saver during busy contests.

Murphy only struck a few times. On the thursday before the contest, we blew out the high voltage power supply during testing. Fortunately, W5VZF's QTH is Starkville, MS, also home to Martin Jue's MFJ Enterprises and Ameritron. After a quick call to the Ameritron folks, we were able to get the amp fixed on friday morning. We actually run in the low-power category which is limited to 150 W. We use the amp because RTTY can be harsh on your finals. Most rigs are built to deliver 100 W or more, but that doesn't assume continuously high power or high duty cycles. So we use the amp and crank down the gain to ensure we're putting out only 150 W. The amp worked well, except for late saturday night when it started making a peculiar buzz followed by some stink. We tried to figure out what was burning, but never did. We eventually put it up for the night. On sunday, the amp worked perfectly without complaint. Go figure.

Conditions weren't very good, all things considered. The solar flux was about 85 and the K-index hovered 2. 10m was a compete waste of time, and 15m wasn't the blockbuster it can be during peak solar cycles. I think the antenna improvements on 40m and 80m really paid off, as we made quite a few contacts there. Hopefully next year the conditions will improve and so will the scores.

Our results are our best ever. We worked all 50 US states plus the District of Columbia. Wyoming was tough, as it usually is, but some of the other rare states were well represented. We really appreciate the hams in Nevada and North Dakota who got on the air and worked us. We ended with a claimed score of 77,366 (766 QSOs and 101 multipliers.) I doubt this will get us in the top-5, but we should stay in the top-10. We'll know in about 6 months.

The post-contest port was an '85 Dow. Very tasty and a fine finish to a great steak dinner. Next year we'll do it again...

Friday Jan 07, 2005

Annual RTTY Roundup part 2

In my previous post on the RTTY Roundup I forgot to mention that this is the 16th year that myself (KB4HB), Phil (WA4DDE), and Jim (W5VZF) have worked the contest. Except for one year, when I got separated by an ice storm, we have gathered every year at Jim's house to work the contest. We typically do pretty well in our category, but have never finished first. Perhaps this is our year...

Annual RTTY Roundup

This weekend (January 8-9, 2005) is the annual ARRL RTTY Roundup contest. RTTY, or Radio Teletype, is one of the first digital communications modes widely used over radios, long before the Internet was even a pipedream. If you have a shortwave radio, you can hear RTTY signals from all over the world coming from news sources, government information broadcasts, and other broadcast-like information. On the ham radio bands you can still hear RTTY being used for keyboard-to-keyboard conversations.

I like RTTY as a contesting mode because it offers a reasonable QSO rate yet is not a guaranteed delivery form of communication. While this may seem inconsistent with my work focus on reliability, when it comes to the fray of a contest, it is hard to beat a human interpreter of the data/garbage. In RTTY, like a SSB voice contest, we would repeat words to help ensure that they get understood at the receiving end. For example, we would say "california california" to try to get the information of what state I was in. The reciever may only copy "%alif\*\*ia cal(%--i a" but from that partial copy, one can reasonably infer I intended them to hear "california." OTOH, if RTTY were a guaranteed delivery like packet radio, then if the reciever didn't get a good copy, they would ask for a retransmission. In poor conditions, or when the signal to noise ratio is low, this retransmission may never get through completely accurately, and if it does, it may take several minutes. So, even though we use RTTY at 45 baud while we could use packet radio at 300 baud on the same frequencies, we much prefer RTTY for contesting.

45 baud? Are we crazy? Yes. But not too crazy. It turns out that we can use 45 baud RTTY with channel separations of just a few tens of Hz. The mark and space are separated by 170 Hz, so we can have potentially 3-4 conversations per kHz of bandwidth. Thus on the limited bandwidth of the shortwave bands, we can get quite a few conversations going simultaneously. This actually works out pretty well, as a reasonable use of bandwidth for conversational communication.

If you are a ham radio operator, get on the air this weekend and work the contest. I know you already have a computer, because otherwise you wouldn't be reading this. Even if you aren't a ham radio nut, you can still check out the action. There is some very good RTTY software available on the net. I like MMTTY which is a quite good RTTY engine which does a number of other modes and allows you to explore digital signal processing. You can feed the audio output of a radio directly into your computer and copy our conversations.

Wednesday Dec 22, 2004

Word of the day: illiberal

Today's word of the day is illiberal.

According to Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, illiberal means "not liberal" (duh), "not broad minded: bigoted," and "opposed to liberalism." There are also some archaic definitions, "lacking a liberal education," "lacking culture and refinement," "not requiring the background of a liberal arts education ," and "not generous: stingy."

I think Santa Claus must not be illiberal, so he must be a liberal?

Thursday Dec 16, 2004

Truth and consequences

Dave Brillhart blogs about truth. But in his argument, I see a fallacy which seems to be coming more prevalent in the US media. The fallacy is that the theory of evolution is presented as truth. In my experience, the only people who claim evolution is truth, is those people who are promoting teaching biblical derivatives as theories in public school. Alas, this is a common tactic of the right-wing media here: put a label on your opponent and then attack the label. This tactic works for the uninformed masses (geez, people think Bill Gates invented the internet), so it is no wonder we continue to see it. But it doesn't hold up to scientific scrutiny.

In my opinion, the root cause of the problem of evolution versus the biblical creation in the US is that some people are not confident in their faith. This leads them to have confidence in the words as a crutch. If they had more confidence in their faith and understood the meaning of the words, then they would have no problem with theories such as evolution, general relativity, or the sun as the center of the solar system, and they would feel at peace with themselves. Meanwhile, scientists will continue to propose and test theories. The more we understand, the more wonderful we find our universe -- I wouldn't want to live in any other...

Monday Dec 13, 2004

USDA bird auction

Last saturday we stopped by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) bird auction at the Otay Mesa customs house. Several times each year, the USDA auctions birds which were confiscated at the border. Most people don't realize that there are all sorts of animals and animal products which are not legal to import without various permits. There are also quite a few smugglers which collect animals for resale, knowing they are being illegally captured and transported across the border.

If you ever intend to take your pets with you on a vacation to Mexico, make sure you have proper documentation that they were born in the US. If you don't have this proof, they may be confiscated at the border when you attempt to re-enter the US. Several of the birds auctioned were pets from the US which were taken on vacation to Mexico. If your pet gets confiscated, you can get it back, but only if you have documented proof. Some people never return to collect their pets, and they get auctioned, just like any other unclaimed property.

Most of the birds confiscated are indigenous to Mexico or Central America: Amazon parrots and conures. But a few are likely pets -- cockatiels, indigenous to Australia. A collection of about 70 Half-moon conures was confiscated. Since there were so many, the bidding never got very high, and most went for a bargain. If you love conures, you missed a good chance to get a flock.

We escaped without too much damage to the wallet, and now we have a few more voices to help wake us up in the morning...

Monday Dec 06, 2004

Why the BCS can't work

Those people outside of the US are probably bilssfully unaware of the perrenial college (American) football problem we must face here. Every year at this time all of the sports writers and thousands of college football fans rail about the inequities and bogosity of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS). To understand this anger, you must first understand that Americans can't seem to be satisfied with anything unless there is a single winner and one or more losers. After 4 months, they expect to be able to award a single champion amongst the hundreds of football teams. This year, after many teams ahve played a dozen games, there are five undefeated teams. Since there are no ties allowed - all games play until there is a victor (American, right?) - none of the five teams have played each other.

Another long tradition in college football is that at the end of the year the best teams get invited to week-long parties followed by a football game. We call these bowl games. Not only are bowl games a lot of fun, they are also a good excuse to make bets, spend some corporate marketing dollars, and generally waste about two weeks watching football over the holiday break. In the old tradition, the bowl games were based on sets of colleges called conferences. For example, every year the best team in the South Eastern Conference (SEC) would go to New Orleans for a mandatory week-long party and football game. This was really special, especially since if your team won, you were obligated to spend another week in the French Quarter trying to buy your way home. But this never really proved satisfactory for Americans because it often meant that there wasn't a clear, single winner as the best team in the SEC likely did not play the best team in the Pac-10 Conference, who was partying in LA somewhere near the Rose bowl. No single winner meant that even if you won every game and the bowl game, you still might be a loser. Something had to give.

So in their infinite wisdom, they invented the Bowl Championship Series. They took the top four money-producing bowls (as measured by their ability to host a good party) and annointed them the venues for the top 8 teams to play. The top 2 teams would play at a predetermined bowl hosted in a round-robin manner by the four special bowls. Surely this would always mean we end up with a single victor, right? Wrong.

Fundamentally this is a medium number problem. When we analyze problems there are basically two ways to be successful. For small numbers of items, with a great deal of structure, we can analyse them analytically. For large numbers of items, with unorganized complexity, we can analyse them with statistical methods. For those problems which have a medium number of items with structure or unorganized complexity, neither analysis nor statistics work well. In the case of the BCS, there are too many teams playing too few games for us to analyse them properly to determine a winner. In these cases, it is quite reasonable to expect that you could end the regular season with five undefeated teams. In fact, one could argue that it is quite likely that there will be more than two undefeated teams for most seasons.

There are two possible solutions here: either decrease the number of teams or significantly increase the number of games played.

Decreasing the number of teams changes the problem to a small number problem and you could easily envision that each team will play against every other team. This will never work because that would also significantly reduce the number of interested fans and subsequently the market size and advertising dollars which drive the whole engine of sports in America.

Increasing the number of games played will change the problem into a large number problem and we could solve it statistically. This too will never work because American football is an expensive and brutal sport - one with a 100% injury rate. Playing lots of games would probably mean that there would be no healthy players remaining at the end of the season.

So we are once again stuck win a problem that can't have a solution we can analyse. The recognition of these medium number problems is just one of the skills of a systems engineer or general systems thinker. If you look around, I bet you will find many similar problems in your every day life.

If you want to read more about general systems thinking, I highly recommend An Introduction to General Systems Thinking by Gerald M. Weinberg.

Sunday Dec 05, 2004

Makin' Bacon

About once or twice a year I get brave enough to try and cook bacon. I love to cook and can make quite a variety of edible delights. But on a rainy sunday morning, grits, bisquits, and bacon are perfect. So I try again, with mixed success. If there was only one trick to cooking bacon, I think I would have figured it out by now. But apparently, there is more than one trick and there is some sort of combination of tricks required. I don't like the taste of bacon cooked in the microwave, after all Mom's bacon was always perfect and she cooked it in a frying pan.

First, bacon doesn't fit in a frying pan. They cut the strips too long and cutting the bacon in half it against internation bacon cooking rules. So, you have to do something to get the ends to cook right without overcooking the middle. The best I can figure, this requires extreme vigilance, a perfectly level stovetop, and perhaps some lifting of the middle during the cooking process.

Second, you have to get the temperature right and even. Good qualify frying pans help because they have a hefty bottom which distributes heat more evenly than a thin bottom. We have pet birds, so anything with a non-stick coating like Teflon, is not permitted in the house. I use a nice set of stainless steel pans with a thick copper/steel laminated bottom. If I really want to feel traditional, I'd break out the cast iron skillet, which also has excellent heat distribution properties.

Third, don't undercook or overcook. This is really tricky because by the time you think you got it right, it is overcooked. Or, if you think you are getting it just right, its undercooked. And you have to watch out for the ends cooking differently than the middle. This is the part that causes me the most trouble.

Fourth, pay attention and don't screw up. This is the part that I can't seem to get right.

Anyway, today's bacon cooking seemed to go ok, but still far from perfect. Perhaps I'll get it right next year.

By the way, the smoke alarm works fine...

Wednesday Dec 01, 2004

Back from vacation...

OK, I'm now back from the holiday and end-of-the year vacation burn. This year the family met near Houston, Texas for the annual Thanksgiving day feast. Though I've flown through Houston many times, I've never left the airport until now. It seems like a nice place, lots of southern hospitality, and we had a good visit. Next time I'll spend more time and play tourist.

Wednesday Nov 03, 2004

Morris worm anniversary

Today is the anniversary of the Morris worm, the first real internet worm. About a month after this, I connected my company to the Internet. Back then it was much harder to get on the Internet because it wasn't opened to just anybody. We were doing some government research, so we were able to get permission.

In the months prior to our connection to the Internet, I was planning and building the systems to be ready for the event. I made a mistake in the sendmail configuration. By chance, the mistake I made also made us immune to the Morris worm. I'd much rather be lucky than good!

Moral: Dogs hold an election

When I tell this story about Dogs holding an election people often look confused, and don't seem to see the humor. This used to bother me a bit, so I thought I would share my view of this story. It is really quite simple.

1. Democracy might work for some, but might not work so well for others. Here in the US, we are educated that our form of federalism is the best. Yet, other democracies exist and do things a little different. Heck, there was even one country which had democracy in it's name, but when I was a kid I was taught that they really weren't democratic and we should hate them (Deutsche Democratische Republik). They held elections, so from a dog's perspective, the DDR was a democracy.

2. You can vote for a bulldog or a greyhound, but neither is best at all tasks. Over the years people have used different names: hawks and doves, Torry and Labour, peacenik and fascist, Democrat and Whig, leftist and right-wing, or liberal and conservative. Any polarized position by definition will necessarily be suboptimal for a set of given challenges. But nobody likes moderates, so we will live in a world of extremes.

3. Nobody has sh\*t that doesn't stink.

In the elections yesterday, I think I scored about 75%, which is pretty good. All of my picks didn't win, but most did. But the real big win is that we won't have to be bombarded by $4 Billion worth of commercial advertising for another 2 years. Whoo-hoo!

Friday Oct 29, 2004

Dogs Hold an Election

As we approach another big election day in the US, I'm reminded of one of my favorite American Indian stories. Democracy, as currently practiced in the US, came at the expense of the native Americans. It is fairly easy to build a county using a new-fangled government experiment if you can get rid of the indiginous people: a lesson Bush doesn't seem to understand.

This story was told to Richard Erdoes by Lame Deer, a Brule Sioux.

Dogs Hold an Election

We don't think much of the white man's elections. Whoever wins, we Indians always lose. Well, we have a little story about elections. Once, a long time ago, the dogs were trying to elect a president. So one of them got up in the big dog convention and said, “I nominate the bulldog for president! He's strong. He can fight.”

“But he can't run,” said another dog. “What good is a fighter who can't run? He won't catch anybody.”

Then another dog got up and said, “I nominate the greyhound, because he sure can run!”

But the other dogs cried, “Naw, he can run all right, but he can't fight! When he catches up with somebody, what happens then? He gets the hell beaten out of him, that's what! So all he's good for is running away!”

Then an ugly mutt jumped up and said, “I nominate the dog for president who smells good underneath his tail!”

And immediately an equally ugly mutt jumped up and yelled, “I second the motion!”

At once all the dogs started sniffing underneath each other's tails. A big chorus went up:

“Phew, he doesn't smell good under his tail!”
“No, neither does this one.”
“He's no presidential timber!”
“No, he's no good either.”
“This one sure isn't the people's choice.”
“Wow, this ain't my candidate!”

When you go out for a walk, just watch the dogs. They're still sniffing underneatch each other's tails. They're looking for a good leader, and they still haven't found him.

In memory of Bob Larson

There have been a number of requests to make donations to charitable organizations in memory of Bob Larson. Carol Larson has suggested the following:

National Kidney Foundation of Oregon and Washington
2142 NW Overton
Portland, OR 97210

St. Andrews Presbyterian Church Mexico Mission Trip
3228 SW Sunset Boulevard
Portland, OR 97201

The Mexico Mission trip is an annual trip the church takes over spring break with the high school students to Tijuana to build houses. Bob and Carol's son Carl will go on his fourth trip this year, and this will be their daughter Lydia's first trip.

Bob Larson, my friend

A friend and colleague passed away this week. Bob Larson worked at Sun in the benchmarking group. I knew him for many years when I would occasionally pick his brain on large customer benchmarks. He also wrote a few, good Sun BluePrints Online articles. Always helpful, kind, and talented, he was a huge asset to Sun and the community. I miss him.

Thursday Oct 21, 2004

Its raining again...

Southern California is not known for its ability to handle rain. After 182 days without rain, breaking the old record of 181 days, we've recieved over 3 inches of rain in the past 3 days. The bulk of the rain came yesterday and caused quite a mess. We've had mudslides, flooded roads, leaky roofs, and a few unfortunate flooded homes. Here at the ranch, we lost one tree, half of another tree, and an awning. Plus we've got mud everywhere. The first rain of the season is when I figure out how well my errosion control is working, but with 3 inches in the first rain, all I can say is that this year, it didn't work very well. We had an overabundance of rabbits this year which ate most of my errosion-control plants. Fortunately, with the rain everything starts to grow and there are lots of plants poking up out of the mud. I'm dreaming of a green Christmas...




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