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July, 2010:


I put Carol on a plane Thursday morning for Chicago, after her mom was taken to the hospital late Tuesday night. Delores is doing a lot better now, but for a few days it was unclear just what was going on. We were both planning on flying out there on the 16th, so this wasn’t an immense change in our summer plans–it just means I’m here by myself for a bit, trying not to eat like a bachelor nor dress like a college student.

I didn’t get the whole story yesterday when I cited the YouTube video of Carol’s sister talking about her experiences at her local Ford dealership. It’s actually a clever piece of marketing, though I’m also sure it’s not viral: The dealership will award a gift certificate to the customer garnering the most clicks on their YouTube video by July 15. So do us a favor and go look at the video. Thanks! (I will admit I’m curious to see how many clicks a citation on Contra can generate, and this is a rare opportunity to find out, with real numbers.)

When Carol’s gone, I generally drown my sorrows by writing, but I ran into an interesting problem yesterday. I finished Chapter 7 of Old Catholics last week. I won’t know how good it is until I get a month’s emotional distance from it, but in the meantime there’s Chapter 8. The problem came in when I sat down to write, me in my shorts with an iced tea on the coaster, the sun beating down on the oaks outside my window, only to realize that Chapter 8 is the Christmas chapter. It’s about the quirky Polish Christmas vigil supper at St. JJ’s, and draws heavily on my own experiences with Polish Christmas vigil suppers, both quirky and ordinary. It was 86 degrees out yesterday afternoon, and no matter what I did, I just could not get my interior state to feel like Christmas. It may be the mark of a true hack to be able to write convincingly about Christmas during the second week of July, but I may need to go back to hack school. I just can’t do it.

No matter. I’ve been working on Old Catholics since 2005; what’s another five or six months’ delay? In the meantime, there’s “Drumlin Circus” to work on. It’s still at the notes-and-outline stage, but that doesn’t mean progress isn’t being made. Imagine a line of circus wagons pulled by woolly mammoths, and a show with an acrobat who performs in a cage with two live smilodons. (I may even work in a giant beaver.) And every artifact the circus owns; wagons, props, steam calliope, everything, is made out of drumlins. The Bitspace Institute kidnaps the circus master’s wife, who supposedly has a private drumlin that compels wild animals to obey her. After two years without her, the circus master finds out where the Institute is keeping her, and let’s say that he has a grudge. When the circus comes to a nearby town, it mounts a show that no one in town–especially the Institute–will ever forget. Pleistocene megafauna, scary clowns, calliope music, secret drumlins, the legendary Function Controller–we’re gonna have a real good time!

It may be as much as 35,000 words long. Jim Strickland is doing a Drumlins novella as well, and we may try to put the two stories together as the first Copperwood Double. I’m not an ace at tete-beche, but I intend to learn. Stay tuned.

Odd Lots

  • Before GPS, there was…rolled paper. I’m not sure how useful a one-dimensional scrollable map is, but it was a good start. (And now, all you steampunkers, figure out how to do the same thing in two dimensions.)
  • Shortwave radio and one-time pads are still being used, as we discovered in the recent Russian spy foofaraw. Slate’s done a decent overview of number-station covert communication. The late Harry Helms wrote a lot about these, and most of what I know came from his books. Some technologies just don’t get better over time. They were optimal from just about the beginning.
  • This Lifehacker tutorial tells you in agonizing detail how to install OS X Snow Leopard in a VirtualBox VM. Cool enough–but when did that become legal? (My guess: It didn’t.)
  • From Pete Albrecht comes a pointer to an item describing a proposed copyright law in Brazil that provides penalties for attempting to limit use of public-domain material, or fair use of copyrighted material via DRM. That is a remarkably good idea. (Maybe we’ll see the Viagens someday after all.)
  • This looks real (i.e., not Photoshopped) but as at least one commenter has pointed out, there seems to be no way to get inside. Maybe it’s the ultimate RC car.
  • Speaking of cars, in reading the comments for this Wired Blog article (titled “What’s the Fastest You’ve Driven?”) I felt old and frumpy. The fastest I’ve ever driven in my life was 95 or 96 MPH: in 1971, in my mom’s battered teal-green 1965 six-banger Chevy Biscayne, northbound on the Edens Expressway just before the I-290 junction…in the rain. Why? I no longer remember. And that’s probably just as well.
  • And yet more about cars: Buss Ford Lincoln Mercury in McHenry, Illinois posts YouTube video endorsements from their happy customers. Buy a Merc before they’re gone…and be famous! (It worked for Carol’s sister and her husband.)
  • And now, for quite enough about cars: Pete Albrecht reminds us that in 1973 somebody glued the rear portion of a Cessna Skymaster to a Ford Pinto, and it flew…for awhile. (What do people say? “Don’t fly 70s cars?” Uh, yeah.)
  • DARPA wants a flying submarine. They should ask Irwin Allen. Or Tom Swift, Jr. (Thanks to Frank Glover for the link.)

Realtime Cloud Logging to Spot Band Openings

(Note: This is a total ham radio geek-out entry, so if such things make your eyes glaze over, be advised that there’s an extreme glaze warning in effect until at least tomorrow morning.)

Anyway. I stumbled on a band opening yesterday by accident: I scanned the 6 meter band, expecting its usual near-silence, and instead heard something like a continuous pileup from 50.2 up to 50.6. Such openings happen semiregularly, especially in the summer and during sunspot maxima, but they’re not reliably present when you want them. Typically, people either monitor the bands for openings using a panadaptor (a way to visualize the whole band at once, often built into high-end radios) or they hear about it from their friends via Skype or some other chat system. (Hey Jeff! 6 is going batshit nuts!)

While copying my notesheet to my log last night, I thought of a better way. Suppose there were a sophisticated Web app allowing people to record their contacts in a central database off in the cloud somewhere. Serious contesters work their radios with both hands on a keyboard these days anyway, but they’re logging their contacts locally, on their own PCs. If enough people were logging enough contacts online in realtime, you could plot those contacts on a map as great-circle lines between one station and another. If you wanted, you could age the plots, so that a given line was displayed on the map for a selectable period of time, say the past fifteen minutes. Older plots would vanish and new ones would be continually added. What you’d have is a lookback time window onto what’s happening on the ham bands, plotted geographically. If you click on the “6 Meters” map and alluva sudden there’s a thick web of lines between Colorado and the east coast, you’d know that there’s a band opening underway.

This would be possible in part because the geographical coordinate locations of stations are implicit in logged contacts. Base (at home) stations are licensed by the FCC to particular addresses, and these addresses are matters of public record, easily queried by software. Mobile stations aren’t required to be at any particular location, but GPS logging for mobiles is possible, and I think has been done, if not commercially. Plus, there’s another way: More and more people (especially on higher bands like 6 meters) log the “grid squares” of the stations that they’ve worked. There’s a system for tagging 2 degree by 1 degree rectangles of the Earth’s surface, such that each rectangle has a 4-character callout. (There are an additional two characters of precision that almost no one uses.) My own is DM78. Here’s a map for the US and for the Earth as a whole. Plotting a line between DM78 and EM94 isn’t hugely precise, but it will tell you that radio signals are propagating usefully between central Colorado and northern South Carolina, and that’s all most of us need to know to make us scramble downstairs and turn the radio on.

I think this is one case where doing something out in the cloud that was previously done locally provides benefits that local storage alone does not. The whole point is to brag about how many locations you’ve worked worldwide, so privacy is not an issue. (If it is, just keep your logs local.) And the benefit of online collaboration is knowing just what propagation paths are open at any given moment of the day. I’d pay a quarter for that, or at least provide data by logging contacts.

I looked around just now to see how close we are, and whereas there are a couple of online logging systems in operation, they are nothing even close to realtime, and none that I can see makes any attempt to plot propagation paths for logged QSOs. That said, nothing I call out here is rocket science.

So. Did I miss something somewhere? And if not, what Ajax wizard is going to give this a try?

Odd Lots