Archive for July, 2008


July 14th, 2008


Yesterday, we engaged in an activity as old as humanity: friends from church invited us to pick blueberries. They have a two-year-old and a baby. So, it was a long trip without a lot of berry picking. The two-year-old had a difficult time with the notion of saving berries for later. Every time she found a berry (ripe or not), she put it in her mouth. I don’t know why, but teaching a two-year-old to gather blueberries, I felt a strange sense of communion with simpler times. It’s good to be home and moving a little slower.

False Precision: A Life Lesson from Tinkering

July 12th, 2008


I’m a tinkerer.  I’ve collected some basic test equipment and tools that allow me to work on many things, mostly electronic and mechanical.  I have a cheap digital multimeter; but, the rest of my test equipment, like the HP 3310A function generator pictured above, is analog.  Unlike digital equipment, where it’s no big deal to add extra digits to a read-out, analog equipment usually offers no more precision in its read-out than it’s capable of resolving.

Recently, I was talking to the guy who was the grader for an RF circuits class I took a few years ago.  He was telling me how amazed he was that students would calculate the required inductance for an inductor to five digits of significance.  And, they would write it in scientific notation: 3.1562E-6 Henries.  We laughed.  Nobody can make an inductor that precisely!  Yet, we can calculate (and often measure) it that precisely.    Tinkering, the process of getting something working, often does not require great precision.  Sometimes that’s easy to forget when you have a powerful computer and a lab full of pricey test equipment.

It turns out that a lot of things in life do not demand immense precision.  Heck, we might be better off without digital precision…

Rant: Where did the Simpsons go?

July 12th, 2008


The last iota of intelligence on the local Fox station vaporized. The FCC could easily revoke their license for failing to serve the public interest. When we moved to Champaign-Urbana, the Simpsons were on at 5:00 and 6:00 on weekdays. If I worked later than 5:00, I could always see the 6:00 episode. The 6:00 episode was replaced about two years ago with “Two and a Half Men.” That’s like replacing your trusty Ford Taurus with a Daewoo, sure it’s a little cheaper, but you’re still driving a Daewoo.  No, actually worse, because “Two and Half Men” is inane.  I was disappointed; but, I did make sure to catch the 5:00 Simpsons a couple of times a week.

In June, the station discontinued the 5:00 episode of the Simpsons for a second half-hour of “King of the Hill,” which also airs at 5:30. Why anyone would want to see an entire hour of “King of the Hill” every day is beyond me. Although, I am grateful that I’ve seen a few episodes of it because the Simpsons did an awesome “King of the Hill” alley scene. So now, we get an hour of “King of the Hill” followed by an hour of “Two and Half Men.” I don’t know who their target audience is; but, they have to be getting dumber watching that.  Part of the grand Fox plan of idiocracy, I guess.

On the bright side, I guess that’s an hour or two of my week I get back. On the other hand, the Simpsons was somewhat educational in the sense that it packed a lifetime of popular culture and historical event references into a half-hour package I could understand without having to sit through all of those other movies and TV shows.

This is How We Roll: A Life Lesson from Travel

July 11th, 2008


Even though we did a little too much of it this Spring, I enjoy traveling and seeing new people and places. Certainly, I have been an impatient traveller at times. But, some of the best times I’ve had traveling have been the “eh, stuff happens” times, the times when I’ve just “rolled with it.” Taking the wrong bus. Streets closed on the way to the airport. Delayed flights. Traffic jams.  Missed flights. They have been adventures, not always stress-free, but I’ve survived.  Luck favors the prepared.  Are you prepared?

Antenna Work

July 10th, 2008


I mentioned a few weeks (months?) ago that I was working on some antenna upgrades and that I had a 20-meter Moxon up.  Well, I built the Moxon out of #14 THHN, which has PVC insulation, using dimensions for bare wire.  Oops.  (This could easily have been a life lesson:  read the fine print.)  I decided against rebuilding the Moxon for two reasons:  First, it was a pain to install in the trees.  Second, I can get a dipole up higher.  So, I put up a 20-meter dipole yesterday.  One end is at about 40 feet and the other at 35 feet or so.  SWR is good and A/B tests on receive are good.  Looking forward to trying it out in the NS tonight.

I also pulled the 80/160 matching network (see picture) off of the roof and moved it to the ground.  This is a major improvement for repairs and adjustments and I gain an extra 10-12 feet of radiator on 160 when I short the feeder.  Since it’s now on the ground, I won’t actually get to try it out on 160 until the mowing guy quits for the year.  N3OX tells me that he solved the “squeemish about wires in the grass” problem by offering to mow his own yard.  We travel too much and I’m really not willing to let the landlady off the hook on anything.  So, no 160 during the summer is the price I have to pay.  I also rebuilt the box with a much more intelligent layout than before.  Let’s just say that I couldn’t bring myself to post the old one on the Internet with my name on it.

I’ll probably try to add 10 and 15 to the 20-meter dipole, just to have them.  But, that’s “later” project.  I also need to build the W3NQN filters for those bands still, too.  I have all of the parts (even the boards) for KK1L‘s 2×6 switch.  But, I’ve cooled off on building it.  Some day.  Maybe.

IARU HF World Championship is this weekend.  This had been one of my favorite contests.  I’ve hardly participated in it since 2004, when I operated W0AIH SOLP CW.  I’m just not much of a single op DX contester these days.  Sarah probably is a big part of that.  She doesn’t like when I contest much longer than the Sprint at a stretch!  We need to work on that.  I’m trying to operate fewer contests more intensely.  SS CW and the CW Sprints are the ones I’m focusing on.  I’ll probably make some Q’s in the IARU, even if it’s just working W1AW/9 and NU1AW/0.

Turn the Big Knob: A Life Lesson from Ham Radio

July 10th, 2008


Ham radio is a great hobby and I’ve met numerous interesting people through it.  But, perhaps more so than some other hobbies, it has its share of sociopaths and nuts who tend broadcast and discuss their intolerant, backwards, or just plain nonsensical viewpoints on the air.  There’s even a saying, “If you don’t like what you hear, turn the big knob on the front of your radio.”  I am torn by this sentiment.  It represents a “tragedy of the commons” that dooms the entire hobby.  At the same time, giving feedback to the belligerents usually only eggs them on.

There are some people who are worth your time and there are some who are not.  There are even some times when good people try to jerk your chain.  Know when to turn the big knob.

Take a lot of Pictures: A Life Lesson from Photography

July 9th, 2008


A few months ago, I bought a Nikon D40 digital SLR camera.  While most modern digital SLR cameras can be operated in a point-and-shoot mode, I have endeavored to learn how to use the camera.  I was completely unprepared for the quality and degrees of freedom that the SLR afforded me.  It has almost no shutter delay compared to my old point-and-shoot.  I can shoot in ambient light.  I still don’t know what half of the settings do.

I take a lot of pictures.  Most of them aren’t very good.  But, each one is another chance at a good one.  It is also more practice.  Thank goodness it’s digital!  I’d spend a small fortune developing the 1500-odd images I’ve taken so far.  Taking this approach to life seems somewhat Edisonian and backwards (work smarter, not harder, as the saying goes).  Try a lot of things (within reason).  One of them just might work.  If not, you’ll still learn something.

Keep on Flying: A Life Lesson from R/C

July 6th, 2008


I’ve written several times about the airplane.  So, this story will repeat somewhat.  As a child, I was interested in R/C airplanes.  In a rare lapse of judgement, Dad bought a used “trainer” from a coworker.  However, since we’d been told that crashing is inevitable, he sold it.

Crashes are inevitable in R/C.  The only way to get better is to keep flying, keep crashing, and keep repairing.  Although most things in life are more robust than R/C airplanes, the ability to pick up the pieces and devise creative solutions after repeated setbacks is a valuable skill.