Wednesday, 31 December, 2003

A good year

It has been a very good year; certainly much better than 2002.  Looking back, I think I'd call this year The Year of New Beginnings.  I started juggling again, got back into ham radio, started a more serious bicycle training program, and managed to fall into an interesting weekly writing gig.  Most importantly, I've come to accept and even appreciate my life more than I ever have before.  (See May 28, 2003 for the scoop on that.)  Debra and I finally completed the back room conversion that we started in 1999, and I think our relationship is stronger than it's ever been.  Yes, it's been a great year.

Here's to an even better 2004.

Tuesday, 30 December, 2003

Update on the Hallicrafters transmitter

Mixed results on the Hallicrafters transmitter (see December 19 and 23).  I took it to a friend's house last night and put it on the bench.  A little poking and prodding, and we managed to get a good CW (Morse Code) signal out of it on the 80 meter band.  We only got about 50 watts out of the transmitter (it's supposed to be capable of 100 watts), but that was before tuning.  Voice was a bit more of a problem.  It took us a while to get any signal at all, and then what we got had a lot of hum in the carrier.  That's not unusual with old gear that hasn't been used in a while, but there are several possible causes.  I'll have to do some more testing before I determine what the real problem is.  All in all, though, it was kind of exciting to hear that CW tone on the receiver's speaker.

One other note.  I said in my previous entry that the transmitter hadn't been used in 30 or more years.  Talking to Mom the other night, I learned that my grandfather was using it in the late 1970's and possibly as late as 1983.  So it's only been 20 to 25 years since the radios were operated.

Monday, 29 December, 2003

Politicians' response to mad cow scare

In a case of grasping at straws that would be worthy of The Onion if it wasn't so pathetic, Democratic Presidential hopefuls are trying every possible way to blame the current administration for mad cow disease and make points with beef producers.  They're smart enough not to come right out and say "Bush is responsible for the sick cow," and in fact skirt the issue because the cow in question was imported during the Clinton administration.  But their comments would have you believe that the Bush administration is the culprit.  Howard Dean's sound bite is typical:

You can't blame the President because a cow came down with BSE [mad cow disease], but you can blame the Bush administration for a lot of what's going to happen to beef farmers over the next couple of weeks. 

When in fact we don't know what the fallout will be.  Domestic response has been calm.  Asian markets have slapped a ban on U.S. beef, which is an understandable precaution and probably won't last long.  Most European markets banned U.S. beef years ago due to hormones, steroids, and genetic engineering concerns.  The net effect on the U.S. beef market will most likely be small and short term.  Not that reality ever stopped political posturing.  In a statement that I thought was uncharacteristically stupid, Dean said:

I haven't verified this so this isn't part of my official platform yet ... I am told that testing every single cow (that is slaughtered) costs an average of three cents extra per pound of meat.  If that's true, we ought to do it.

He should know better than to say something that he hasn't verified.  I thought he'd learned that lesson with his "Bush knew about 9-11" comment.  Note also that he kind of glosses over that little three cents per pound increase that will have to be passed on to consumers.

Dean isn't the only one trying to make points here.  Richard Gephardt hopped on the liberal high horse calling for country-of-origin labeling, and a typical "us against them" comment:

We need a president who is committed to the right of American consumers to know where their meat is coming from and not to the huge special interests that are fighting to keep safety regulations out of our food.

Not to be outdone, John Kerry has called for federal aid for farmers who suffer financial loss from the mad cow scare and Dennis Kucinich announced that he will introduce legislation next month that prohibits slaughtering "downer" cattle (those too sick to or injured to walk) for food.  Joseph Lieberman, the only mostly rational of the Democratic hopefuls, has been thankfully silent on the issue.

I don't know if I can bring myself to listen to the news for the next 10 months.

Sunday, 28 December, 2003

Bike, Bike, Bike

My road bike was in the shop all week, and I was kind of busy (or lazy, depending on your point of view) doing other things.  I managed an hour long mountain bike ride on Monday, mostly flat ground and no major effort.  Friday I loaded the bike into the truck and headed down to Walnut Creek Park where I spent a little over two hours exploring the trails there with another cyclist I met.  We covered 20 miles or so through the trees, up and down the ravines, and getting our feet wet crossing the creek.  It's the most fun I've had on my mountain bike in quite some time.

I got the road bike back on Saturday and took it out today for a shakedown cruise:  63 miles of mostly up and down, with a couple of major hills thrown in at about the 50 mile mark.  I was tired by the time I got home but felt surprisingly good, especially considering that I haven't been riding much the last few weeks.  Laziness is over now (I hope).  I have three months until the big ride.  I wonder if I could make that in two days rather than three.

Saturday, 27 December, 2003

Hewlett Packard 2410 All-In-One

My major gift to Debra this year was a Hewlett Packard PSC 2410 printer/scanner/copier/fax.  She's been wanting to print photos and we've both needed a scanner.  I've always had good luck with HP printers and I've heard good things about their scanners, so there really was no question what I'd get.  Opening the box, I got their installation poster, which walked me through the installation.  Up to a point.  When it came time to insert the ink cartridges, I couldn't get them in there.  For a while I thought I was just being stupid, and then I figured I'd done something wrong and went through the trouble of aborting the installation, cleaning up the scraps left behind, and restarting.  No dice.  The hardware was bad.  So off to Fry's for a replacement, which was no problem but just a lot of bother.

HP's installation instructions are great, and their troubleshooting guide looks like it covers every possibility of operator error.  But neither it nor the support Web site says anything about what to do if the printer cartridge tray doesn't lower when you lift the access cover.  I finally broke down and called their support line, which I'm pretty sure connected me to somebody in India.  It took me about 10 minutes to convince the guy that I'm not a complete idiot, that indeed I was looking at an HP 2410 All-in-One, and the silly thing wasn't responding as expected.  I'm not sure if he really believed me or if he was just tired of talking to me when he told me to take it back for a refund or replacement.  I don't think they train technical service people to work with people who know what they're doing.

After I got the thing hooked up, Debra spent a large part of the afternoon going through three years of digital pictures and printing shots of us and the kids (dogs and cat) to send to relatives who don't have computers.  This little thing makes some fine quality prints.  They're not photo-shop quality, but they're darned close.  Certainly good enough for most things I need.

The scanner report will have to wait until I futz with it.  I have a number of things to scan, but those projects are going to consume significant time.

Thursday, 25 December, 2003

The Return of the King

Debra and I spent a quiet morning of reflection and gift unwrapping, followed by lunch with friends and a trip to the theatre to take in The Return of the King.  Did you know that Christmas day is one of the biggest days of the year for movie theatres?  Debra picked up the tickets a couple of days in advance, so we were able to walk in without standing outside in the cold.  Even so, 30 minutes before the start of the movie we were unable to find two adjacent seats except right up in the first three rows.

The movie, by the way, is absolutely fantastic.  It's beautifully rendered, the special effects are outstanding, and the battle sequences had me on the edge of my seat.  Somehow they managed to include all that action and keep it interesting throughout.  I had high expectations after seeing the first two films, and this one didn't disappoint.  I was totally blown away.

Tuesday, 23 December, 2003

Hallicrafters progress

I finished cleaning up my Hallicrafter's transmitter (see December 19) over the last few days, checked the fuse, and plugged into the Variac.  I took a good 6 hours to bring it up to full power, and was rewarded with a nice glow from all the vacuum tubes.  I took a few shots without the flash, but the tubes just didn't provide enough light to make a decent picture.  I guess there's still some use for analog cameras:  fast film.

I've gone about as far as I can without help.  It'll be next week before I can take it to a friend's house for further testing.

Sunday, 21 December, 2003

Another slow week

It was another slow week for riding, what with cold weather and a lot of things going on.  I had planned a 70-mile ride for today, but one of my shift levers broke to the point where I can't shift and I can't repair it myself.  Plumb wore out, they tell me at the bike shop.  It'll be Wednesday or possibly Friday before it's fixed, so I'm stuck riding the mountain bike for a week.  That's not a bad thing, really, although the mountain bike is not made for hours of road riding.  I'll probably spend the week doing one-hour rides.  Maybe find a tough hill and do "hill repeats"–ride up the hill, rest on the way down, repeat until legs are rubber.  That kind of workout is not recommended more often than once a week.

Friday, 19 December, 2003

Hallicrafters transmitter

The other major piece of amateur radio gear that my grandfather left is a Hallicrafters HT-37 transmitter.  Unlike the Collins receiver, this radio hasn't been powered since at least 1989.  I suspect it's been longer than that:  probably 30 years or more since anybody plugged this thing in.  As far as I know, the radio sat in my grandfather's house until 1989 when my sister packed it in her car and delivered it to me in Colorado.  Jeff Duntemann took it with the Collins in 1990 and then returned it to me in 1995 when Debra and I moved here.  It's been packed in a box in the corner of the garage for the past 8 years.

I dug it out of the box last week and scraped off the bigger pieces of deteriorated packing material.  Last night I took a bunch of "before" pictures and started cleaning it up.  A little Orange TKO (wonderful stuff, by the way) and some light elbow grease removed the worst of the stuck-on packing material and some other stains from the case. 

Inside, the radio looks like it was well treated, although I admit I haven't yet opened up the bottom where most of the wires are.  I pulled the tubes and tested them, and will be placing an order for replacements at Antique Electronic Supply.  While I'm waiting for the tubes to arrive, I'll be cleaning the accumulated cat hair, dust, and other junk, and examining the rig to see if there are any obvious signs of breakage:  loose or chewed wires, messy modifications, or exploded parts.  I'll need some help from somebody more experienced than I am when it comes time to add power.  I lack the knowledge and the test equipment required to make sure the thing is working well.  I don't expect any problems, as this radio was stored with the other one, and Jeff tells me that the Collins came up with no trouble.  "I plugged it in and it worked."

The final step, of course, is to put the rig back on the air.  To that end, I'm studying Morse Code and the material required to obtain my General class amateur radio license.  Eventually I'll put together a ham radio page featuring the Collins and the Hallicrafters, with pictures and descriptions of the steps I took to get it back into operating condition.

Wednesday, 17 December, 2003

Firing up the Collins

I spent some time over the weekend fiddling with my Collins 75A-4 amateur radio receiver (see March 12, 2003), making sure it fired up okay and trying to get familiar with the controls.  Since Jeff Duntemann (K7JPD) had it working a year ago, I figured it'd come up with little trouble.  Even so, this old gear can be temperamental if it's unused for a while so I borrowed a Variac from a helpful member (Steve, KI5YG) of the Williamson County Amateur Radio Club and brought it up slowly.  I dug in the closet for my old flying headset, attached a too-short piece of lamp cord for an antenna, and was able to receive a few signals.  I need to attach a better antenna, preferably running outside or stretched in the attic, and then go through the calibration and tuning process to make sure the radio is functioning perfectly.

A bigger problem is that somebody apparently modified the radio years ago to receive military communications.  The 15-meter and 11-meter bands, and half of the 10-meter band have been hijacked.  The long-term project for this rig is to remove the modifications and put it back to original working condition.  I need to improve my soldering and schematic-reading skills before I tackle that one, though.  There's also a BNC antenna connector on the back that I think was an after-purchase modification.  I rather prefer that kind of connector, so I'll probably just leave it the way it is.

I'm fortunate in that I have the original manual for the receiver, including good documentation for the modifications.  That old manual is getting pretty ragged, though.  A search of the Web of infinite delight revealed the Collins Collectors Association which has, among other wondrous things, the full 75A-4 receiver manual in PDF format.  Time to download and print that, then put the original manual in a ziplock bag.

Tuesday, 16 December, 2003

Automating fast food restaurants

Another thing that should have been automated years ago is fast food restaurants.  You simply shouldn't have to talk to a surly minimum-wage employee in order to get a Big Mac.  Anybody who can operate an ATM or a Nintendo game could press the buttons to order a Happy Meal.  Add a credit card reader and cash acceptor, and you've got the entire required user interface for a fast food restaurant.  The rest should be pretty simple robotics:  cook the burgers for 37 seconds on each side, squirt some ketchup, mustard, or special sauce on the buns, slap on the other assorted goodies and send it off to the auto-wrapper.  Just think, fries that are correctly cooked and always hot and fresh.  Is this really that hard?  Can it possibly be more expensive than paying 20 people to do the work of 5?

The argument is that automating things puts people out of work, but my reading of recent history (since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution) doesn't show that.  If it were true, the pace of automation over the past 300 years would have long ago put everybody out of work.  The reality is that automation causes temporary and localized unemployment, requiring worker re-training.  People are freed to do more productive things.  The primary problem being that people resist any kind of change, often to the point of violence.

Monday, 15 December, 2003

Automating libraries

I've long wondered why some things aren't automated.  A public library, for example.  20 years ago my dad and I determined that all the technology required to fully automate a lending library was easily available and not even especially difficult.  Picture an ATM-like interface that reads a card and presents a simple menu of books.  Scroll through the list or enter the ISBN of the book you want and it's delivered through the slot in a few minutes.  No fuss, no muss.  Behind the scenes is a room full of books, all with the ISBN or other identifying numbers printed on the spines, and a robotic reader/grabber that finds the book and delivers it.  Returns are handled similarly:  put a book in the slot and the machine takes over, reading the number off the spine and directing the robotics to replace it in the stacks.  This has to be less expensive and more efficient than the current system of clueless volunteers who more often than not direct you to the wrong place.

It doesn't replace librarians, though, who are invaluable research assistants.  Nor can it match the allure of a quiet library reading room.  But for most people who just want to get the latest Tom Clancy novel or a stack full of research material from the library, it'd be a huge time saver.  To this day I can't understand why it hasn't been done.

Sunday, 14 December, 2003

A slow week for riding

This was a slow week for riding.  I was tired from the week before because I didn't let my body rest after my Thanksgiving weekend 170 miles.  I skipped riding on Monday, did the normal Tuesday morning ride and then went for a night mountain bike ride on Wednesday.  It'd been a long time since I was last on the trail in the dark and I'd forgotten how much fun it is.  I took Thursday and Friday off, and then picked back up on Saturday.  I was supposed to do 70 miles today but I was time-limited and had to settle for 2 hours of speed work:  high-heart rate sprints and hill climbs interspersed with slow easy spinning.  It's a tough workout.  I'm feeling rested, though, and ready to get back to my normal riding schedule next week.

Friday, 12 December, 2003

Holiday party

Catapult Systems held their annual Holiday Party this evening at the Renaissance Hotel in northwest Austin, the fifth that Debra and I have attended.  The invitation says "semi formal," but most people dress up formally and a few of us even wear tuxedos.  Debra, of course, out-shined me in her new gown.  Sometimes I wonder how I got so lucky.  After the official party we adjourned to the night club attached to the hotel for a couple hours of dancing and assorted craziness.  But the place filled up with smoke and we had to leave before hypoxia set in.  I don't know how I managed to spend so much time in bars when I was younger.

I thought I had a program that would remove the "red eye" effect from photos, but I can't find it now.  I guess it was one of those trashy image editor programs that installed with some hardware and which was harder to use than the features warranted.  When I find a decent program with that feature I'll come back and remove the red eyes.  Although Debra does look quite devilish with that red glow in her eyes, doesn't she?

Tuesday, 09 December, 2003

The Grab Bag

A grab bag full of stuff on the email front:

  • The U.S. House of Representatives yesterday afternoon agreed on the Senate's changes to the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act of 2003 (CAN-SPAM).  The President has said that he will sign it into law.  Full text of the bill is available in PDF form here.  The too-cutesy title itself should give away the bill's purpose:  a feel-good measure to tell people that Congress is "doing something about the problem."  The bill instructs the Federal Trade Commission to create regulations to control spam, and gives them considerable leeway in doing so.  I don't see this law making any significant dent in the load of spam I filter every day.  The Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email (CAUCE) is unhappy because the bill in effect gives spammers license to hit each mailbox once with impunity.
  • spamhole creates a fake "open relay"—the kind of server that spammers just love to connect their mass email programs to.  spamhole servers don't forward messages, but rather just swallow them.  The idea is simple:  "By creating as many false 'open relays' on the Internet as possible, we hope to make the detection and use of a real open relay as much of a chore as we can."  They configure the server to allow a certain number of messages to go through unmolested just to trick the spammer into using the relay.  After the threshold is reached, messages go into the bit bucket.  It's kind of a cool idea, but nothing that spammers couldn't get around with an afternoon's coding.  Just make every 100 or so messages a test message and stop when a message doesn't go through.  spamhole might slow the spammers down a bit, but I can't see it making any more of a dent than the CAN-SPAM act.
  • Take a look at Remail from the Collaborative User Experience (CUE) team at IBM Research.  They've spent 10 years studying how email is used, identifying ways to improve email clients, and developing a prototype to try out their ideas.  Are they new ideas or just refinements of old ideas?  Makes no difference as far as I'm concerned, as long as they can make the absurd amount of time I spend in my Inbox a little less tedious.
  • Jeff Duntemann reports in his December 6 web diary entry that the cause of his email problems looks to be an overflow bug in PocoMail.  Things started going wiggy when his mailbase accumulated between 32,000 and 33,000 messages.  You programmers out there probably remember the magic number 32,767:  the upper limit of a 16-bit signed integer.  Apparently somebody on the Poco development team figured that 32,767 messages was more than enough for anybody to have in a single mailbase.  I think that was a pretty silly assumption.  I know that I'd have at least that many if I had converted my Outlook files when I converted to Poco.  Seeing this error makes me a little nervous about what other surprises might be lurking nearby.
  • Spammers are becoming more technically adept.  Rather than searching for open relays and putting up with fakes like spamhole, they're learning to compromise legitimate servers or turn unwitting client computers into stealth spam servers.  slashdot just posted this story about recent incidents.  Pretty frightening stuff.

Monday, 08 December, 2003

Yahoo's email authentication plans

On my morning scan of Techdirt I picked up this story about Yahoo working on an email authentication plan that would let senders prove they are who they say they are.  This only two and a half years after I suggested it here (May 15, 2001).

The beauty of Yahoo's plan is that it will continue to work with existing message traffic, allowing even unauthenticated email to pass.  That might seem folly at first glance.  The article is short on detail, but I suspect that Yahoo will have a way to flag a message as authenticated or not, thereby giving email clients a method of filtering unauthenticated messages.  Yahoo will make the source of their "Domain Keys" software available to open-source email software and systems, which means that a large percentage of clients will have the ability to create and filter these messages.  I wonder if they'll also make it available to developers of proprietary systems.  I certainly hope so.  Otherwise we'll end up with competing standards that will make the problem even worse.

This is exactly what we've needed: a major player in the email space to take the lead and implement something.  If it works out well for Yahoo, then the other major email providers will have ample incentive to follow suit.  Some will argue that reverse DNS lookup is already available, and since very few servers use it today there's no reason to expect that they'll use this new system that is essentially the same thing: a DNS "private key" lookup.  The article doesn't provide any detail, but I would suspect that Yahoo's people looked into SMTP authentication and found it lacking.  The system the article describes sounds stronger than what's already available.  I sure hope it works out.

Sunday, 07 December, 2003

Bicycling update

The reason I usually ride in the morning is so that I can get that done and out of the way.  If I put off the ride until later in the day, it's entirely too easy to have something "more important" cause me to miss the ride.  Yesterday was a case in point.  I met some members of the local ham radio club for an early breakfast and discussion, then got busy and conveniently missed my ride.  So today I went out for the long ride.  In the wind again.  And hills this time, too.  I'd rather do hills than wind, but both at once are tough.  Today's ride was supposed to be 64 miles but I miscalculated and ended up doing 68.  I felt good, if a little weak on the last few hills.  Fortunately the wind was at my back the last 10 miles.  I didn't take it easy the last week like I should have, so my legs are still a bit weak and tired.

Thursday, 04 December, 2003

A visit to the doctor

I've been seeing a cardiologist since last June after I learned of my older brother's heart trouble.  I figured I'd get myself checked out and keep an eye on it.  On July 2 I had a stress echo cardiogram and the doctor pronounced me okay.  But low HDL cholesterol (26 when it should be above 40) and high triglycerides (300+ when they should be below 150) are bad signs.  He prescribed exercise for the triglycerides and a slow buildup to 2,000 mg of niacin every day to bring up the HDL.  I saw him a couple of weeks ago and my triglycerides were down to 200 and the HDL was up to 31.  Both steps in the right direction, but not near enough.  He prescribed TriCor and I'm taking it but not terribly happy about it.  Drugs aren't my thing.

One thing I don't know is how much of the improvement is due to the drugs and how much to the exercise.  Exercise is known to increase HDL and reduce triglycerides.  Unfortunately, the effects last only as long as the exercise regimen lasts.  I'm tempted to go off the drugs and see what happens.  It's not like I'm in any immediate danger of heart trouble.

One thing I can credit to exercise is a decrease in my blood pressure, which has never been especially high, and a decrease in my resting heart rate.  I went to the dentist today for my semi-annual tooth scraping and they took my blood pressure and heart rate.  Then they asked me if I felt okay and if I exercised.  I guess a BP reading of 98/59 and a resting pulse of 48 is kind of unusual.  Those numbers are certainly lower than I've ever seen them.  I wonder what my blood pressure is when I'm cranking up a hill with a heart rate of 180 or more.