Monday, March 21, 2011

Getting to Know D-Star

I've been a radio guy all my life. I passed my amateur "ham" radio license exam about the same time I passed my driver's license test, and have been happily sending signals into the sky since then.

The past ten years, I have been playing with digital ham radio, which for me meant keyboard to keyboard contacts, APRS (GPS & ham radio), home weather stations and such. But last weekend, digital ham radio took on a whole new dimension when I plugged in a microphone.

The technology is called D-Star (Digital Smart Technologies for Amateur Radio) and it was developed with research by the Japanese Amateur Radio League. It combines the best in ham radio technology with Internet networking to provide a unique experience.

I first saw D-Star several years ago and was stunned by the audio quality, not surprising since it uses part Internet and part radio to make the path. But there were no repeaters and it was pretty much a "point to point" system. For me, half the fun of ham radio is "calling CQ" and listening for a response from anyone anywhere.

D-Star has really grown since then, with more than 40 reflectors and hundreds of repeaters. It was time for me to jump in.

I ordered an Icom ID-880 transceiver and, when it arrived, programmed in my local VHF D-Star repeater frequency here in Dallas. Then I programmed in my call sign (N5CSU) and entered the path to Reflector 001C, the so called MegaReflector. This takes my little VHF transmission and retransmits it to about 25 repeaters that are currently connected to that reflector. On my first transmission, a ham near Melbourne, Australia answered my call! Later that evening, I talked to a ham that was operating mobile near Times Square (describing in detail the St. Patrick's day celebration going on.)

Just listening to reflector 1C this weekend has been fun, with voices from Australia, Scotland, England, Russia, Canada and all parts of the US coming out of my little radio.

There are many advantages to digital comms over analog! The call sign, name and short message scroll by on my radio display, and you can see the activity logs on an Internet site; lists the last 100 or so hams using D-Star. And, hams can now use a headset and a "dongle" plugged into a USB slot and come out on an repeater in the world!

While D-Star is currently only supported by one manufacturer, and there is a learning curve to using it, it has definitely won me over as a new fun mode! It will be on here in the "ham shack" from now on.

To learn more about D-Star, check out the Wikipedia entry. And if you would like to join us on the air, check out! Ham radio is a lot of fun, and a grerat way to learn about new technology. And, you no longer have to learn the Morse code.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

19 Guidelines for Software Development (and life in general)

In researching the concept of open innovation, Wikipedia links to a seminal essay titled The Cathedral & The Bazaar, Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary, written by Eric Raymond. The essay discusses two open software development models, and got me interested enough to buy it for my iPad book queue.

In the meantime, though, I enjoyed and wanted to share his 19 guidelines for creating good open source software. Several of these can be applied outside the coder's world.

1. Every good work of software starts by scratching a developer's personal itch.
2. Good programmers know what to write. Great ones know what to rewrite (and reuse).
3. Plan to throw one away; you will, anyhow.
4. If you have the right attitude, interesting problems will find you.
5. When you lose interest in a program, your last duty to it is to hand it off to a competent successor.
6. Treating your users as co-developers is your least-hassle route to rapid code improvement and effective debugging.
7. Release early. Release often. And listen to your customers.
8. Given a large enough beta-tester and co-developer base, almost every problem will be characterized quickly and the fix obvious to someone.
9. Smart data structures and dumb code works a lot better than the other way around.
10. If you treat your beta-testers as if they're your most valuable resource, they will respond by becoming your most valuable resource.
11. The next best thing to having good ideas is recognizing good ideas from your users. Sometimes the latter is better.
12. Often, the most striking and innovative solutions come from realizing that your concept of the problem was wrong.
13. Perfection (in design) is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but rather when there is nothing more to take away.
14. Any tool should be useful in the expected way, but a truly great tool lends itself to uses you never expected.
15. When writing gateway software of any kind, take pains to disturb the data stream as little as possible—and never throw away information unless the recipient forces you to!
16. When your language is nowhere near Turing-complete, syntactic sugar can be your friend.
17. A security system is only as secure as its secret. Beware of pseudo-secrets.
18. To solve an interesting problem, start by finding a problem that is interesting to you.
19. Provided the development coordinator has a communications medium at least as good as the Internet, and knows how to lead without coercion, many heads are inevitably better than one.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

IPad and Deja Vu

After a couple of weeks with the iPad, I keep experiencing deja vu to the early days of personal commuting, and a breakthrough product called the TRS-80 Model 100.

The Model 100 was one of the first portable computers, ran on AA batteries or AC, had a full size keyboard and a small LCD screen that displayed 8 lines of text at a time. And, perhaps most importantly, it had a built in modem. Granted, it was only 300 baud and used dial up, but, back then, it was all we had and it was magical. For the first time, writers had a computer that was really portable.

The Model 100 quickly became the traveling journalist's constant companion. Compact, instant on, tough as nails, and always there. Back then, I was a volunteer columnist for StarText, the online version of the Fort Worth Star Telegram. I quickly succumbed to an impulse buy and a 100 became my favorite computer.

As I blog this from AA1346 on my IPad, I remember writing a StarText column from flight on my 100 about twenty years ago. Since the virtual keyboard takes up about a third of the screen, I can really only see about 10 lines of text!

Two weeks with the iPad and my experience has been great. My typing is just as bad on the virtual keyboard as it is on a real one, so I'm fine with typing on the screen. The instant-on aspect is terrific. Contrast that with a recent stop at Starbucks: it took ten minutes for a virus software update on my netbook to finish. I found myself waiting on software so I could leave!

Applications are coming out daily that just blow my mind: a fully featured GPS for $5, HD TV streaming, and a full board Words with Friends.

Reading books with the Kindle software is a pleasure. It's great that the software tracks what page I'm on when I switch between the iPhone and the iPad.

The lack of multitasking is a bit of a pain but will disappear with the OS upgrade later this year.

My biggest issue is its lack of a file management system. The word processing application I use, Words from Apple, stores its files in one directory. File transfer is restricted to iWorks or to email. Hopefully this will be expanded to other options soon including Google Docs and Dropbox. For now, I have to email this entry to work for posting on our blog system. I'll also use cut and paste to post to my Internet blog when we land. There is wifi on this flight, but I'm not willing to pay the $9!

I believe tablet computers will be a game changer for many folks, but it won't just be Apple in the game. There will be multiple players shortly and, I'll be rooting for open source to take the lead. But in the meantime, I'll sure enjoy the iPad!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Daemon: A Fascinating Book

There are virtual worlds that sit atop the physical world. You can't see them, but when you flip on your GPS on, you get a window into that world,as Popups for upcoming restaurants, roads and locations of interest appear. With a heads up display (HUD), pilots (and expensive car owners) actually see this virtual world superimposed on the real world.

Imagine that an HUD could be miniaturized into a pair of glasses. With them, you could walk around and see additional information on everyday objects and locations, much like the Layars program is now providing for Android devices.

Now suppose that both public records and confidential databases of every type, from medical records to Visa card purchasing history to credit reports, were added as layers of data available to HUD users. Then suppose a genius in the online virtual worlds business unleashes a program that attempts to become the daemon, or control system, for the real world using all of this data. And then he dies, leaving the daemon in control.

That is the premise of a fascinating book by Daniel Suarez, Daemon, and the recently released follow up, Freedom. Many of the concepts he presents are already available, and, page after page, he really had me thinking.

Daemon is not only a good read, but will really make you think about the implications of a truly networked world. It will stick with you long after you finish the book!

Available from Amazon in hardcopy or soft (and, yes, the Daemon will know you bought it unless you purchase a hardcopy with cash in a bookstore, and there’s not a surveillance camera nearby!)

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Weather Station on line

I'm happy to report that we now have an online weather station online here at Cedar Creek Lake! We're using a Davis Vantage Vue weather station and their WeatherLink software. It streams data to an older XP PC running Virtual Weather Station, which uploads data to Weather Underground every 4 seconds. It seems to be working fine so far; the weakest link with be our DSL here in east Texas, which is not entirely reliable.

The Vantage Vue is a new model from Davis and, while less expensive than the Vantage Pro, I like the design better. It's smaller, easier to set up and doesn't lack any features that I need.

I hope to also be beaconing weather packets on ham radio APRS soon. I also hope to return our Dallas weather station to the net and back on the air soon!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Coding for Communicators

I recently attended a workshop titled "Reaching your Readers," subtitled "Crafting Effective Communication at Work." This is the first time in years (decades?) that I've taken the time to actually think about the writing process. We covered the basics (grammar, punctuation and the AP Stylebook), then delved into writing for an internal audience. It was actually interesting stuff for a reluctant English major who chose a degree plan based on how to spend the maximum amount of time in the campus radio's news department.

As we walked through the rules for grammar and punctuation, I couldn't help but think of folks learning English as a second language. For every rule, there is an exception!

I also flashed back to a programming course from a years ago (UNIX anyone?) and realized that these grammar and punctuation rules were just the coding standards for writers!

After a day and a half in class, I hope I'm a more conscientious writer. And I swore to no longer end sentences with.....


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

So Far So Good!

A quick update on wireless access for my iPod Touch: I'm happy to report good results with the iPass Connect program. In my first month, My iTouch has connected to the net from Starbucks, McDonalds and the Hyatt. Luckily, my travel schedule has been light so far this year so I've not had to exercise it more. Still, it's so quick and easy, it's well worth the $6.95 a month.

If you're looking for quick access to wireless, check their list of wifi spot arrangements at

I took a look at JLink and there are 38 wireless access points on their service within 5 miles of my neighborhood here in east Dallas! Pretty cool!

I'm happy to recommend it... it keeps my Touch in Touch!