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Another Successful Expedition to the WCRA Mid-Winter Hamfest!

Posted by: The Mad Scientist

Somewhat regularly since 2006 I have been happily detailing my annual trips to the Wheaton Community Radio Amateurs Mid-Winter Hamfest in this blog. Originally, it made a lot of sense for me to write about my trips to the WCRA hamfest here. This is because I had created this blog to detail the trials and tribulations that I experienced while trying to build a audio-animatronic robot fox for the first time, and when I went to this hamfest for the very first time six years ago it was primarily for the purpose of trying to find some of the tools and parts that I needed to build this robot. Nowadays however, with my Foxee animatronic robot project on hold, I primarily go to this hamfest each year to have fun searching for bizarre and interesting electronic wonders of any kind-- I am an Amateur Radio operator after all and a vintage computer collecting enthusiast to boot, so there are always amazing treasures for me to find at hamfests whether they have to specifically deal with animatronics or not.

The WCRA Mid-Winter Hamfest took place this year on Sunday, January 22, and lasted from eight in the morning until one in the afternoon. While this winter so far has been an unusually warm and snowless one (and amen to that!), two days before the hamfest we actually had the season's largest snowstorm thus far, and as a result when I drove to the hamefest on Sunday morning it actually looked like winter outside-- it was overcast, there was more than 6-inches of snow on the ground, and the temperature was below freezing. While it felt pretty bitingly cold outside, I decided that the weather conditions were more than fitting-- this was the mid-winter hamfest after all, and it just wouldn't seem right without the wintery conditions!

Despite my best efforts to get to the hamfest by the time that it started at 8AM this year, I only as able to get there by 8:30AM. You see, when it comes to hamfests it is very important to get there as early as possible. This due to the phenomenon known as "The 9-o'clock Rush." To explain, for whatever reason, it seems that unlike myself most ham radio operators are *extremely* early risers. Because of this, when it comes to hamfests they all get up at the ass crack of dawn, swarm all over the hamfest's flea market tables like locusts right when the hamfest opens to get all of the early bargains, and then all leave an hour or two later after all of the perceived "bargains" are picked clean. While I can understand the idea of the hamfest attendees getting there early to find the best deals and treasures, what I don't understand is that some of the sellers at the hamfests will also leave right after this early rush is over, despite the fact that the hamfest could still be going on for another 3 or 4 hours yet. Because of this, if you don't get to a hamfest before 10-o'clock you might as well not even bother going because not only will at least half of the attendees have already left, but half of the flea market sellers and vendors will have left by then as well. Unfortunately, despite my waking up with plenty of time and having everything ready to go before hand, I wasn't feeling well on Sunday morning, and as a result I had to hold off making the 45+ minute drive out to St. Charles until some of the medicine that I had taken kicked in.

While it had seemed like the attendance to this hamfest had been gradually waning over the years, for this year at least that didn't seem to be the case at all. The parking lot at the Kane County Fair Grounds was absolutely packed, and I was lucky to find a parking space at all. Having arrived at the hamfest at the height of its early morning rush, there were so many attendees packed in the building that it was hard to move through the crowds, and you couldn't even get close to many of the flea market tables because there were so many other people swarming all over them, in many cases two or three-people deep. While most of the time attending a hamfest is an enjoyable almost cathartic experience for me, there were so many people in my way keeping me from being able to see any of the flea market tables that after a while I started to get slightly bent out of shape and frustrated by it. While the large crowd was a positive sign of the attendance-health of this hamfest, I guess, I didn't get up really early in the morning while not feeling well and drive 32-miles just to watch other people hog the tables and buy-up everything that was worthwhile, you know?

It seemed like the lion's share of the buying-frenzy activity was focused around three of four rows of tables on one side of the exhibit hall, so to save my composure I decided to sacrifice whatever all of the old men were competing over over there and start working the other side of the exhibit hall instead, which while still very busy, at least had some open spots so that I could walk up and see what was actually being sold at the tables. My going over to the other side of the exhibit hall turned out to be a really good move, as I ended up finding what was probably my best deal of the day: a used Uniden Bearcat BC895XLT trunking scanner for $40. The Uniden Bearcat BC895XLT is a tabletop scanning receiver that was released in the late 1990's. It covers frequencies ranging from 29-956MHz, it has 300 programmable channels, the ability to scan 100-channels per second, CTCSS decoding, Unique Data Skip, and Trunk-Tracking capabilities. It was the Trunk-Tracking feature that caught my attention-- while I have much newer scanners, such as my beloved Radio Shack PRO-83 handheld scanner that I got new back in 2004, up until now I had never had a scanner that had built in Trunk-Tracking capabilities. Unfortunately, like with most of the used equipment that I buy on the cheap, the technology in this scanner is past its prime which is why I was able to get it for such a great price. Back in the day having a trunking scanner was a very hot item, and scanners with this feature cost a small fortune. Even as late as the mid-2000's I couldn't afford to buy an expensive trunking scanner, which is why even my beloved PRO-83 lacks this feature. However, now that digital radio is starting to become more prevalently used amongst our public service agencies and analog trunking systems are now on their way out, digital scanners are now the hot new high-priced item and scanners with trunk-tracking capabilities are now no longer the high-ticket items that they once were. If I remember correctly, the local Naperville Public Safety services used trunking radio networks for many years, and they were always the primary reason in this area to get a trunking scanner (however now that I finally have a trunking scanner I have learned that Naperville has since gone digital-- it figures). Anyway, there are still plenty of Motorola Type II Smartnets around, and with this scanner I finally have the capability to monitor them.

Along with the before-mention Uniden Bearcat trunking scanner I ended up buying a whole mess of other wondrous "treasures:"

  • A replacement telescoping antenna for the Uniden Bearcat BC895XLT trunking scanner - Yes, I realize that it is probably sacrilegious to use a simple telescoping antenna with a scanner like this instead of a full-blown outdoor discone antenna or something, but since the scanner came without an antenna and I don't even know yet if the scanner even works I wanted the cheapest and easiest to store antenna possible to try this scanner out with. There is no rule that says that I can't buy a more "proper" antenna later, right?
  • Two Mitsubishi DiamondPoint V50LCD 15" LCD Monitors - With a relatively tiny 15" screen, a 1024 x 768 resolution at 75Hz, and a contrast ratio of 500:1, these are by no means anything that is particularly special when it comes to color LCD monitors, but at $20 a pop I am more than happy to take a chance with them. For those of you reading this blog who don't already know, I am a big vintage computer enthusiast and collector, and last year I setup my very own exhibit at the Vintage Computer Fair - Midwest (VCF-MW) for the first time. When it comes to vintage computers I have plenty of the computers themselves, but not very many monitors. Initially, this was by design-- the old CRT monitors that these computers often used were very large and extremely heavy, so early on in my vintage computer-collecting career I decided to forgo collecting the monitors and just started running all of the Sun and SGI workstations that I was collecting "headless," only hooking them up to an actual monitor or to one of my KVM switches when I actually needed to. As a result, up until now I have been able to get away with collecting more than 90 computers while primarily only sharing two or three monitors between them as-needed. When I decided to setup a working Sun SPARCStation 2 (4/75) as my VCF-MW exhibit however, I found myself without a suitable spare monitor to bring along with me to the event to hookup to the system. Luckily, someone donated a large and heavy Sun CRT monitor to me for me to use as part of my setup (under the condition that I take the monitor home with me afterwards-- *sigh*), but while I lucked out that time the problem was clear-- I needed some lightweight, easily transportable, and expendable LCD monitors available to take with me when I put together exhibits at these kinds of events in the future. That is the role these two Mitsubishi Diamondpoint monitors are supposed to take. Hopefully they will work out for me-- Sun SPARCStations like to have a funky display resolution of 1152x900, so I am not so sure if I can get one of them to display through one of these lower resolution monitors at a lower resolution or otherwise. It is still worth a try however, and if it doesn't work out there are still other systems in my collection that can use these monitors or I can use their VESA mounts to try to install them onto one of my walls or onto one of my server racks at home.
  • A MFJ-1278 Multi-Mode Data Controller (With Multi-Gray Level and 2400 MODEMS) - This is a 10-mode computer interface from the very early 1990's. It can support RTTY, PACTOR, Packet 300/1200, Amtor, SSTV, Navtex, CW and FAX. Amateur Packet radio, despite being almost completely dead for nearly a decade, seems to be making a resurgence in popularity for whatever reason as of late, and this old piece of equipment *might* help me finally try packet radio out should I ever feel so inclined. I ended up buying this little piece of equipment for three reasons: it came with all of its manuals (and boy does it have a lot of them), it was dirt cheap, and it is covered with little LED indicator lights on its front panel. I absolutely *love* little blinking LED's in any form that I can get them in! :D Unfortunately it didn't come with its MS-DOS-era software floppy disks, but hopefully those won't be too overly difficult to find. *crosses fingers*
  • An 11-year old unopened box of 60 Office Depot brand color Inkjet transparencies - I use Inkjet transparency film when I create hand-painted promotional "cels" of my cartoon characters. After 11-years I have no idea if these transparencies are still any good, but since I only paid a quarter for them I figured that they are worth the risk. I will try anything to help cut the expenses of my artistic endeavors. Besides, the back of the box specifically mentioned that these 11-year old transparencies were compatible with my even older HP DeskJet 722C printer, which I thought was pretty deluxe! :D
  • A Gigaware PC-to-TV Converter - This is supposed to be able to display the VGA video output from a computer on a standard definition television set. This particular model even comes with a remote control! I have been meaning to get one of these for a long time as a cheap way for me to be able to stream the movies that are saved on my HP MediaVault onto my clunky old CRT standard-definition television set that is in my bedroom using a small-form-factor PC or something along those lines running XBMC. Hopefully this converter end up doing the trick for me!
  • A Sony Digital Mavica MVCFD7 Digital Still Camera - A digital camera that saves its photos to a 3.5" floppy disk drive that is *built into the camera!* Seriously, how cool is that!? I bought it for $2. It doesn't have a battery pack, and I have no idea if it works. I suppose that I will have to find out someday! ;)
  • Two Straight-Through External VGA Monitor Cables - Always useful to have. I have a Viewsonic LCD monitor laying around that needed one of these, and since they were cheap I figured that I might as well buy a spare one as well.
  • A 5.25" floppy disk notcher - You can actually use both sides of that single-sided 5.25" floppy in your Commodore 1541 disk drive with one of these!
  • A PCI 16550 Fast Serial Card - With old fashioned RS-232 serial ports rapidly disappearing from modern-day computer motherboards, this PCI card provides an easy way to add two additional serial ports to any modern computer. This allows you to easily connect your computer to legacy serial devices, such as the previously-mentioned MFJ-1278 10-Mode Computer Interface that I bought!
  • Nine 128MB USB flash drives - A small 128MB USB flash drive may seem completely useless in this day and age when flash drives that have a capacity of 32GB or more are extremely common, but they do have one very useful purpose to me-- as software protection dongles. Expensive high-end computer software, such as the animation and rendering software messiahStudio, often require the use of a USB flash drive to act as one of these dongles, and need to be plugged into the computer to be able to use the software. Since the license key files that are written to these dongles are typically really small, it would be a huge waste of money to dedicate a high-capacity USB flash drive for the task. Even using a 128MB USB flash drive as a software security dongle is massive capacity-overkill, but since these USB flash drives only cost me 50-cents apiece to buy (and actually I paid a little less than that for them) I think that I can live with wasting some of the capacity on them!
  • Some old Apple Macintosh computer software on 3.5" floppy disk - I bought an Apple Power Macintosh 6100/66 DOS Compatible computer at last year's VCF-MW, and had no software to run on it. A nice gentleman at the hamfest had some old Apple Macintosh software on some floppy disks, and he ended up giving me the software disks for free with the hope that I could use some of the programs on my computer. The software on the disks include: Some ©1984 disks containing "System," Macwrite, and Macpaint (for the original Macintosh?), a disk containing System 6.0.7, a disk containing Berkeley Systems After Dark, a disk containing the FWB Hard Disk Toolkit Personal Edition for Power Macintosh and Macintosh, and two disks containing drivers for the Kensington Turbo Mouse 4.0. Hmmm. Quite an eclectic collection of software, but I might be able to get some use out of some of it.
  • A brand new factory-sealed Texas Instruments TI-80 Graphing Calculator - The TI-80 graphing calculator was the very first graphing calculator that I ever owned. My parents bought me one back during the very first year that this model was released in 1995 so that I could use it in my eighth-grade Algebra class. Unfortunately, I didn't have the calculator for very long. A guy in my Applied Technology class asked me if he could borrow it to use in a class he was taking later that day. Originally I wasn't going to loan it to him as the calculator was brand new, expensive, and I didn't know the guy, but one of my friends who was there spoke up on his behalf and vouched for his trustworthiness. Reluctantly, I handed the calculator over to the guy, expecting to get it back later on in the day. Of course I never got the calculator back, and by the time that I got the school's staff involved to get it back the calculator had "disappeared" from the guy's possession, and he claimed that I never loaned anything to him. Since the school's staff couldn't find the calculator on the kid they decided that it was my word against his, and that they couldn't discipline him without proof. So the jerk got away with stealing my calculator scot-free, I learned the hard way that my one friend was a very crappy judge of character, I got in huge trouble with my parents who refused to replace the stolen calculator, and I had to go through most of eighth-grade Algebra without a graphing calculator of any kind. Eventually, in high school I got a much more capable TI-83 graphing calculator (which also has a tragic story revolving around when I once let another student borrow it, but that story will be saved for another day). So 17-years after I had my original TI-80 stolen, I *finally* have one again. Considering my deep affection for Texas Instruments graphing calculators I bought it completely for nostalgia's sake (I still have my beloved TI-83 from high school and my TI-92plus from college, so I didn't need to buy it to use it), and once I get my hands on two CR2032 batteries to power it with I am going to love messing around with one of these again, especially since I was barely able to even get acquainted with my first one before I was separated from it!
  • A used Jakks Pacific, Inc. Atari Paddle Controller "Plug it in and Play TV Games" - This little baby has 13 classic Atari VCS games built into a replica Atari VCS Paddle Controller. All you do is place 4 "AA" batteries into the controller, plug the controller into the RCA inputs on your TV, and go. The games on it include Super Breakout, Casino, Warlords, Arcade Warlords, Circus Atari, Street Racer, Demons to Diamonds, Steeple Chase, Night Driver, Breakout, Canyon Bomber, Video Olympics, and Pong. I actually already had this particular TV Game, but it is currently buried in the bottom bin underneath two or three other heavy bins filled with books and other things from college. Since this used one was being sold for a pittance, I figured that it would be far less painful just to buy this one than go through an entire day's worth of trouble trying to dig my own one out of storage.
  • The book Seizing the Enigma: The Race to Break the German U-Boats Codes, 1939-1943 by David Khan
  • The book 101 Uses for a Dead Computer by Mat Wahlstrom and Ted Pitts - A seller at the hamfest handed me this book for free, and flipping through it, I can kind of see why!
  • A brand new Parallax, Inc. Boe-Bot Robot Kit - Ah ha! If you were thinking that I went through this entire hamfest without buying anything robot-related, then you were sadly mistaken! Here is my justification for posting this long-winded hamfest article on an animatronic robot project blog right here! This was one of my very last purchases of the day, my most expensive purchase, and the one that I have *by far* the most buyer's remorse about. How could I possibly be more remorseful over buying this than any of the other worthless pieces of crap that I bought, you ask? Well, there are two reasons that immediately come to mind. While I paid less than a third of the retail price to buy this robot kit here at the hamfest, I still paid a lot for it when my personal money supply is scarce, so that makes me somewhat remorseful right there. With that said, by far the main reason why I am somewhat remorseful for buying this robot kit is its labeled difficulty level. It is labeled as a "beginner" kit, which I have a feeling means that it is likely way too easy and simple for someone like myself to build and program. The Parallax website claims that this robot is used by some colleges for educational purposes, which sounds a little promising, but I have a feeling that I bought a robot kit more targeted at a much younger and less-experienced crowd. I don't know, maybe I will be pleasantly surprised by this kit, and maybe there are more challenging things that can end up being done with it.

While it is definitely not unusual for me to come home with a decent pile of electronic junk from any hamfest, this year, despite my far smaller than usual budget, I think that I actually came home with much more junk than usual. The reason for this is because so much of what I bought this year ended up being small items that cost next to nothing. I was throwing around a quarter here, 50-cents there, a couple bucks over there. For fun, I actually got a stack of $2 bills from my bank, and was getting a kick out of paying for everything with them. Most people don't see $2 bills very often, so it can actually be an event for them when they get one. Last but not least, I actually got rid of something at this hamfest! The idea of me actually unloading something sounds unbelievable I know, but every once in a blue moon it does happen! What I got rid of was a 1973 Panasonic RE-7273 3-band table radio with AM, FM, and NOAA Weather bands. The radio was kind of neat, but it took up too much space in my basement and it had a cracked plastic dial face that I didn't feel like trying to find a replacement for. I originally tried to sell it at the hamfest for a few bucks, but there were no takers. Not wanting to bring it home, I eventually gave it away for free to a guy who said that he knew of a charity that he could donate it to. Hopefully he was being straight with me, because it would be nice to think that the radio went towards some kind of good cause instead of just in somebody's basement or a landfill somewhere.

There were other things going on at this hamfest besides shopping, such as VE testing and technology panel talks, and while I once attended a panel talk about Motorola D-Star technology at this hamfest a few years ago I did not attend any talks this year. Instead, I spent the last hour or so of the hamfest talking to some of the sellers that were there and having a very interesting conversation. Like many hamfests, this one had a raffle with hourly drawings and many neat prizes. I pre-ordered my ticket for the hamfest this year, which allowed me to have four raffle tickets instead of just one, but it didn't matter-- as usual, I still didn't win anything. All in all I had a very good time at this year's WCRA Mid-Winter Hamfest, and it remains one of my favorite hamfests of the year because it happens at a time when I start missing going to hamfests the most and really have an itch for one!

New Treasures from the 2011 WCRA Mid-Winter Hamfest

Posted by: The Mad Scientist

I just went to the WCRA Mid-Winter Hamfest yesterday, and as a result I came home with a whole bunch of new precious treasures that are filled with magic and wonderment (a.k.a. junk)! Some of my amazing finds there this year included:

  • A 4-port VGA Video Splitter and Enhancer!
  • A Cisco 1900 series 10baseT Ethernet switch!
  • A Cisco serial console cable!
  • Assorted Linksys 100baseTX Ethernet switches!
  • A boxed copy of IBM OS/2 Warp version 3 and a huge bag of assorted software for it!
  • An external USB CD burner!
  • An unopened factory-sealed box of vintage CD caddies! (Does anyone remember back when CD-ROM drives used caddies? As a vintage computer collector, I still have some CD-ROM drives that do! :D )
  • And my most amazing find of all, an unopened factory-sealed box of 8-inch floppy disks! That's right! 8-inch! If you thought that the 5.25-inch floppy disks were as big as they came, then prepare to have your mind blown and your consciousness brought to a higher plane of existence! The 5.25-inch floppies of the 1980's are actually more properly known as mini-floppies, and the formerly ubiquitous 3.5-inch floppies were known as micro-floppies. To have an actual floppy disk without the "micro" or the "mini" in front of it you need to be rockin' one of these large 1970's-era 8-inch floppy disks! Now if I only had a disk drive that used them... :D
  • Other assorted pieces of wonderful inexpensive junk!

If none of this stuff sounds incredibly amazing or wonderful to you, you're actually not the only one that feels that way. Unfortunately, even I have to admit that the pickings at the hamfest were slim this year. Normally when I go to a hamfest there are at least one or two things that I see that are "I have got to have this!!!" items. For example, last year at this very same hamfest I found a Commodore 64C computer still in its original box, a 1950's Bakelite "Police Alarm" police-band FM vacuum tube-based tabletop receiver, and a book on creating your own laser holography. Now those are things that I can really get excited about! :) This year however there just wasn't really anything there that got me all that excited. And on top of that, it seems like the attendance to this hamfest seems to be significantly dwindling from year to year. I don't know why, but even though the total number of ham radio operators in the U.S. have increased year after year for the past three years, attendances at pretty much every hamfest that I go to have dropped steadily across the board for the decade-and-a-half that I have been going to them. Some are literally half the size that they used to be, and that is really a shame, because along with furry conventions, hamfests are one of the few events that I look forward to attending year after year. Oh well, maybe I will find some better stuff when I go to my next hamfest in May! :)

Putting Some "Extra" Effort into Amateur Radio

Posted by: The Mad Scientist

It has been a very long time since I have posted an entry here to my Foxee Animatronic Robot Project Blog, and I very much apologize for that. However, please rest assured that I have not given up on eventually building an animatronic version of my beloved Foxee character, nor have I given up on my efforts of using this blog to detail my experiences of doing so. If any of you have been following what I have been up to on my main Project Destiny Studios™ website, you would know that I have been involved with selling my artwork in well over a dozen furry convention art shows and that I have gotten a lot of artwork published in print since the last time that I posted here. It takes a lot of time and money to get those kinds of things accomplished, and since I am not exactly made of either time nor money I had to spend a lot less of both with building my robot Foxee. With that said my Foxee Animatronic Robot Project is still very much alive and well, and I will be writing some entries detailing all of the progress that I have made with building her over the past couple years in future entries of this blog.

With that said, I also have some very happy news to report! Those of you who know me know that I have no formal electrical engineering training, and that all of my electrical engineering skills were picked up through my 13-years as a licensed U.S. amateur radio operator. The amateur radio hobby is a great way to pick up some serious hands-on experience with electronics, and many of the ham radio operators that I have met over the years have never ceased to amaze me with their incredible technical prowess and skill.

Back in September of 2005 on this blog I happily announced that I had upgraded my amateur radio license from a Technician Plus Class license to a General Class license. I am now extremely happy to report that after two months of hard studying I have passed the Element 4 written exam, and that means that I have now earned the highest class of license in the Amateur Service-- the Amateur Extra class! As a result, I am now been granted all of the privileges that a amateur radio operator in the United States can have, and for the next week or so when I talk on the air I get to identify myself as "KB9MFT/AE" (pronounced over the air as "KB9MFT Tempory AE") to indicate that I have earned my new license.

I have wanted to become an Amateur Extra ever since I earned my General Class license in 2005, and after several times of starting to study for the exam but losing interest and never taking it I have finally pushed myself to go all the way and take the exam. As far as what gave me the motivation to finally go and do it this time, in a way it was actually a financial one. To explain what I mean, the Volunteer Examiner Coordinator Question Pool Committee changes the question pools for all of the amateur radio license exams every few years to keep the questions up-to-date and relevant to the hobby. The current question pool for the Amateur Extra Class exam went into effect back in 2002 and was going to be replaced with a new question pool on July 31st of this year. I had already spent more than $50 buying both the Gordon West and ARRL preparation study books for the exam a couple years ago when I first tried my hand at studying for it, and I didn't want to have to go out and re-purchase those study books in two months when they updated the question pools with the brand new questions. So in order to save myself from spending $50 to re-buy the study books I finally put the axe to the grinder and forced myself to learn all of the equations and electrical engineering knowledge that I needed to finally take and pass the test! Isn't it amazing what the fear of having to shell out a few extra greenbacks can cause you to accomplish?

When I took the exam last Friday, I was actually very nervous that I would just barely not pass it. While I had studied much much harder for the Element 4 exam than I had for any other amateur radio exam that I had ever taken, some of the material was so difficult that I was still worried that I wouldn't pass it on my first shot. To give you an example of some of the questions that were on the exam, here are a few of the questions that I had to spend extra time studying:

  • E2E07: What is the typical bandwidth of a properly modulated MFSK16 signal?
  • E5C11: In polar coordinates, what is the impedance of a network comprised of a 100-picofarad capacitor in parallel with a 4,000-ohm resistor at 500kHz?
  • E7D01: What are three major oscillator circuits often used in Amateur Radio equipment?

For those of you who are interested, the answers to those questions are:

  • E2E07: 316 Hz
  • E5C11: 2490 ohms, /-51.5 degrees
  • E7D01: Colpitts, Hartley, and Pierce

Now I am sure that somewhere out there some Amateur Extra Class ham will read those questions that I listed above and say out loud to himself, "Those simple questions gave this guy trouble? Ha! I can do those kinds of questions in my sleep!" Well, good for you. I at least thought that questions like that were really tough when I had my first go at them in my study book, and I had to go through each of those questions more than once before I finally got them down cold. And I am sure that I am not the only ham radio operator who had to study a little bit harder for this exam than the previous exams-- as of currently there are only around 110,000 Amateur Extra class operators in the United States, which is less than 1 in every 5 U.S. Ham Radio Operators. If the test was easy I am sure that the ratio of Amateur Extras license holders would be much higher, especially since the Amateur Extra license exam no longer has a 20-wpm Morse Code test as part of it. So I am very proud that I finally passed this exam and earned the top license, and I am especially proud that I once again did it on my very first try taking the test, which has been the case for every amateur radio license examination I have ever taken since I got my original Tech-Plus license back in junior high school.

As much as I wish that I could say that you would be hearing me soon on the exclusive portions of the 80, 40, 20, and 15-meter bands that are reserved only for Amateur Extra Class operators, the unfortunate truth is that I don't currently own any radio equipment that can operate on anything below the 10-meter ham band. Hopefully that will one day change, and I will finally be able to use all of the additional radio privileges that have been awarded to me. While I do not operate on any of the ham bands very often these days, a few places where you may still actually find me on the air are on the 2-meter band talk-in frequencies of many local hamfests, on the local SKYWARN Severe Weather Net on the DuPage Amateur Radio Club W9DUP repeater at 145.430 MHz (I renewed my Advanced-Level SKYWARN Severe Weather Spotter Certification earlier this year), on the Ham Radio talk-in frequency at the Midwest Furfest furry convention each November, or once every blue moon or so on the Night Patrol Net on the Argonne Amateur Radio Club W9ANL repeater at 145.190 MHz. These days I am only on the air about a dozen or so times a year, mainly on the 2-meter band, but hopefully that will one day change if I am ever able to get better equipment and more free time.

Believe it or not, while I originally became a ham radio operator back in the mid-1990's to talk on the air, it's actually not the "talking" part of the hobby that drives my interest in it today. As I mentioned above I have received most of my self-taught electrical engineering skills through the amateur radio hobby, and it is my interest in continuing to improve those skills that led me to want to upgrade my license. The ham radio hobby is one of the few hobbies out there that actually encourages you to design, build, and experiment with your own equipment, and there is a large community of technically experienced hams that are more than willing to help you learn the skills needed to complete your projects. As a result, many great American innovators were involved at some point in their lives with amateur radio, including the the famous aviation pioneer and billionaire Howard R. Hughes, Jr., the current NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, co-founder of Apple Computer Steve Wozniac, former CEO of Apple Computer John Scully, founder of Atari Nolan Bushnell, co-founder of Hewlitt-Packard David Packard, co-inventor of the Hayes Smartmodem and co-founder of Hayes Microcomputer Products Dale Heatherington, the famous phone phreaker John Draper, the famous computer hacker Kevin Mitnick, and even many Astronauts and Cosmonauts! As an aspiring animatronic robot designer and builder ham radio is a great hobby to be in, and it has been absolutely crucial in helping me understand how robots can be controlled through radio control at the circuit board level.

While I may now have the top radio license in the U.S. Amateur Service, that doesn't mean that my studying for radio license exams has come to an end. For the past couple years I have been holding onto a study book for a commercial FCC radio license known as the General Radiotelephone Operator License with Ship RADAR Endorsement (a.k.a. the "GROL"), and I plan to eventually earn that license as well. That license would officially certify me as being qualified to operate and repair certain marine and aviation radio equipment, repair and operate ship RADAR systems, and operate commercial international broadcast stations. While I don't necessarily feel driven to perform any of those job duties as a career, I would still like to really have the GROL license on my resume to show to employers that I have some proficiency in electrical engineering. The GROL license exam's written elements 1, 3, and 8 have a combined total of 150 questions in it as opposed the the Amateur Extra exam's 50, so it is a much harder exam, but I feel confident that I can eventually pass it.

I am always happy to meet with other hams at ham radio related events and discuss the wonderful hobby that we share. I plan to be at the Princeton Hamfest, Computer, and Hobby Show on June 1st, the Six Meter Club of Chicago Hamfest on June 8th, the DucKon Science Fiction Convention on June 13-15, possibly the Fox Radio Relay League Hamfest on July 13th, and possibly the Bolingbrook Amateur Radio Society Hamfest on August 3rd. We will see if I still have enough money left to buy yet more odd electronic equipment for my personal mad scientist menagerie by the time those last two hamfests come around this year-- as friends who know me already know (and to my parents' great dismay), I have the tendency to drag home some of the weirdest pieces of large electronic crap from those places! In any case, hopefully I will hit the ham bands again soon, and until then I wish you all a hearty "73!"

Pump Up the Volume! (Foxee will Really Rock!)

Posted by: The Mad Scientist

Foxee is going to be one little robot fox that will really rock! "What the heck are you talking about?" you ask? What I happen to be talking about is Foxee's internal sound system, which if all goes according to plan will be a heck of a lot better than the sound system that I currently have in my car and maybe even better than the sound system that I have in my bedroom! Recently on eBay I purchased a deluxe car stereo CD player and receiver and two 120-watt stereo speakers that I plan on stuffing into Foxee's electronic innards! So what does Foxee need such a sophisticated and killer sound system for? Well, in my earlier posts to this blog I mentioned that I want Foxee to be able to talk, sing, and perform pre-programmed and recorded shows on demand. Since robots don't have vocal cords to speak with, I figured giving Foxee some high powered car stereo speakers would be the next best thing!

The reason why I picked up the car stereo is three-fold. First of all, I plan to program Foxee's performances onto CD-R's, so I needed a CD player placed inside Foxee to be able to read those CD-R's and send their sound and servo data to the sound system and the Buffington Effects CD2Serial board, respectively. Originally, I was going to use a Sony portable CD player to accomplish this task, which was what was recommended to be used with the CD2Serial board by Buffington Effects, and what Kitt Foxx used to control his "Georgia Belle" animatronic fursuit. Despite the large number of good reasons to stick with what works and go with using a Sony brand portable CD player in my robot, the fact of the matter is that I just can't be satisfied with doing what everyone else recommends, that I do-- I have to do everything one step better!

I did have some good reasons to go with a car dash board CD player over a portable hand-held unit. One of the problems that my robot will have that currently Kitt Foxx's Georgia Belle doesn't have is the fact that for the first few performances at least, Foxee will have to interact with a human performer on stage-- namely yours truly, the Mad Scientist himself. To my knowledge, Kitt Foxx has always gotten around this by having everyone who had to interact with Georgia Belle also be in fursuit costumes so that all of their lines could be pre-recorded and played back to be in synch with Georgia Belle's servo units. As cool as fursuit costumes are, I don't have one and I as of currently do not have the desire to get one. Besides, with how much custom fursuits cost I couldn't afford one if I wanted to right now anyway! Instead I will be dressed up in my normal everyday clothes when I perform on stage with Foxee, which means that I will be dressed in my Mad Scientists' Union lab coat, protective goggles, and linesman gloves because a mad scientist never leaves home without them!

Since my face won't be covered by a fursuit head when I perform with Foxee, I won't be able to easily have my lines pre-recorded and lip-synch myself to them. Instead I will have to talk to Foxee live on stage, and then get her to say her pre-recorded lines on cue. That would be a feat that would almost be impossible to accomplish well if Foxee had a portable CD player stuffed inside of her somewhere because the portable CD player will want to continue playing the recording straight on through until the end no matter what happens. Foxee's programming could be started and stopped if she was hooked up to a laptop computer, but since I have currently been having a hard time finding a powerful enough laptop that falls within my budget, I can't depend of having a laptop be my only option. Instead, I discovered some time ago that many higher-end car dashboard stereo systems came with an infrared remote control for whatever reason, and that the car stereo's remote control could be used to play and pause the CD that the stereo was playing! Eureka! I can use that remote to pause Foxee if I need to so that I can say my lines, and then use the remote again to restart Foxee so that she can then say her own lines! I can also use that remote control to start or stop her current program or select a new program. It would be a lot more convenient than having to open up Foxee's access panels every time that I had to change Foxee's program, that's for sure! And while I know that there are small tabletop CD players out there that come with remote controls, car dashboard CD players are designed to run off a 12-volt lead acid battery like the one that is going to be powering Foxee, so I save myself from having to build or purchase a power inverter by going with the car dashboard unit!

The car stereo CD player and receiver that I chose to purchase to install into her is a Jensen MP5720XMC. I have no particular affiliation with the brand name (in fact I have never even heard of Jensen before), but it was selling for a price that I could afford on eBay, and that was the main reason why I chose this particular unit. The CD player was being sold by a subsidiary company of Circuit City department stores called "Circuit Trader" that sells used, surplus, and damaged equipment. I had to buy a used CD player to save on costs because I would really tax my meager funds to buy a brand new unit, but the auction listing said that the unit was "tested and functions 100%," so all I can do is pray that since they are a large company and have a decent positive eBay rating that they were telling the truth! I really wish that I could have bought a lower-end and lower priced car CD player that was brand new because Foxee doesn't need half of the fancy features that this Jensen player comes with, but I absolutely needed a car CD player model that came with a remote control for it to work with my robot, and it seems that only the higher-end car CD player models come with one.


Photo of a Jensen MP5720XMC 50 Watt Mobile XM Satellite Radio Compatible CD-Player

The Jensen MP5720XMC 50-Watt Mobile XM Satellite Radio Compatible CD-Player

The Jensen MP5720XMC has the following features:

  • Internal Amplifier that can pump out 50-Watts continuous power and 200-Watts peak power - Ooorah! The internal amplifier will provide plenty of oomph for Foxee's voice and singing! A lot more oomph than a portable CD player and a pair of computer speakers could provide anyway!
  • Ability to play CD-R's and CD-RW's - This feature is absolutely necessary because Foxee's programs are going to be stored onto CD-R's.
  • Ability to play MP3 Data CD's - As wonderful as this feature is, it isn't really useful for me in this application unless I was going to use Foxee as an overly expensive blue fur-covered personal stereo! Since Foxee is going to have binary data saved in an analog format on one of her stereo audio channel tracks, compressing those tracks into an MP3 file would probably corrupt the Frequency Shift Keyed binary data needed to control her servos. MP3 files are nice, but Foxee is a high-fidelity only fox!
  • Pre-Amp Outputs - Depending on how much the internal amplifier distorts the audio signal coming from the CD, the pre-amp outputs may prove to be useful for the stereo channel that contains the Frequency Shift Keyed servo data.
  • XM™ Satellite Radio compatible - Buy a super expensive satellite radio receiver to hook into an animatronic robot fox? I'm sorry, but no matter how much Foxee likes listening to Howard Stern, that's not happening!
  • Bass, Treble, Balance, and Fader controls - These controls are great if you are an audiophile, but potentially harmful if you are a robot fox that depends upon FSK encoded data to control her servo motor muscles! Pumping up her base settings to turn her into a thumping ghetto blaster would also probably not do her foxy little body any good!
  • AM/FM Radio Tuner - Foxee has no reason to ever be able to tune into FM or AM broadcast band radio signals, however because I am an experimenting amateur radio operator, I wouldn't be too surprised if I ended up soldering the antenna feed line to Foxee's copper wire frame just to see how good of an antenna Foxee's frame would make! If Foxee's frame actually makes a decent antenna (I highly doubt it!) then I will be able to use her to listen to the Chicago Cubs baseball games on radio station WGN! It would be utterly useless to have Foxee be able to do that, but sometimes the coolest things in life are utterly useless, right?
  • Detatchable faceplate for added security - If someone rips open my fox's cute and fuzzy little body and reaches into her wire and circuit board-entangled innards just to jack her stereo's already used and beat-up faceplate, that thief has some serious mental problems! I guarantee that many of the cars in the parking lots at the conventions that I will be at will have far better car stereos in them than Foxee will ever have!
  • Infrared Remote Control - "Command your wily robot vixen with ease with the infrared remote control..." Don't you wish that your girlfriend came installed with one of these? Remote controls make everything life so much better!
  • "Cool" multi-color bright vacuum fluorescent display - Which no one will ever see because it will be buried inside Foxee's stomach region somewhere. You can't win them all, especially when you are using a flashy car stereo as an internal organ for a robot fox!

The speakers that I purchased for Foxee are a brand-new pair of 120-Watt Diamond 380GX 3.5-inch full-range speakers. I know that 3.5-inch speakers are not very big as far as car stereo speakers go, however I don't have a lot of space inside Foxee's frame so having speakers as large as 3.5-inches is about as big as I can go anyway. In addition, I will probably only be installing one speaker and not both of them because Foxee is only going to have one audio channel when she is running her programs off of an audio CD because the other channel is being used for FSK-encoded servo control data. Foxee may be capable of having stereo sound for her audio tracks when her program is being run off of a laptop computer instead off of an audio CD, but since I plan to use her internal CD player more often I don't expect to have enough use for stereo sound to try to fit in the extra speaker. I realize that mono sound may not be the most impressive thing in this day and age, but once again Foxee is a robot fox and not a hi-fi system. In any case, the performance that these 100-Watt speakers will provide will blow away the performance of the computer speakers that I had originally intended to place inside her!

Photo of Pyramid 380GX Full-Range Speakers

Pyramid 380GX 3.5-inch 120 Watt Full-Range 3-Way Speakers

Here are the features of the Diamond 380GX full-range speakers:

  • 3.5-inch Bronze Poly Coated Woofer Cone
  • 20 oz. Magnet Structure
  • 0.75-inch High Temperature Ferro Fluid Enhanced Voice Coil
  • Finished In Gold Trims & Gold Dust Cap
  • 1.75-inch Pole Mounted Aluminum Film Tweeter
  • 120 Watts Rated Power
  • 4 Ohm Impedance
  • Mounting Depth of 1.5-inches

I really hope that when these parts all come in that they all work as advertised. The speakers I am not worried about because they are still brand new and factory sealed, and besides, you really have to work at it to ruin a speaker. Instead I am more concerned about the used Jensen car CD player. Anyone who knows me knows that I am not a fan of optical storage technology because of how easy optical disks are to scratch and damage and how finicky optical disk readers can become after only after a year or two (or even less!) of normal use. If only they could have put all optical discs into protective cartridges like Sony did with their Mini-disc-- the world would be a much happier place if they did! So I really hope that this used car CD player functions 100% like the Trading Circuit dealer said that it does, or my attempt to save a little money will blow up in my face. It would be nice to not have to search through eBay, surplus stores, hamfests, and flea markets for second-hand parts and just purchase everything brand new, but unfortunately I am the stereotypical impoverished experimenter, so that is how the cookie crumbles until I find a better source of funding or a venture capitalist who has a soft spot for arctic blue foxes! (*Hint!* *Hint!* Steve Jobs, if you're reading this, that means you! Foxee is going to have a stereo CD player inside her-- that means that you can market her as Apple's new "iFox" music player! Just think about all of the marketing possibilities!) In any case, we will see how everything goes, and hopefully I will have only positive things to report back to you after I receive and test this equipment to see if it works! As always, comments are always welcome on any of my blog entries!

Gearing Up, Part II: Preparing to Build Foxee's Frame

Posted by: The Mad Scientist

Greetings Foxee fans! I'm taking a break from cleaning up all of the strange contraptions and implements of destruction scattered around my mad scientist laboratory to give you a quick update on my ultimate project of insane greatness, building a moving, talking, and singing robotic blue fox! I have been extremely busy the last two days running my mad scientist bank account into oblivion, or in other words finishing what I started at the Wheaton Hamfest last weekend by buying up all of the supplies, parts, and tools that I need to start constructing Foxee's metal wire frame. That's right! You heard me correctly! After months and months and months of me talking about all of my insanely great ideas and how my animatronic fox is going to revolutionize the world with her cuteness, I am actually almost ready to start putting my money where my mouth is and start building something! After all of this time it's hard to believe, isn't it?

I've had quite a shopping spree over the last couple days! In that time I have been to RadioShack, Michael's Art Supply, Home Depot, Wal*Mart, American Science and Surplus, and finally RadioShack again! After my success with finding some of Foxee's parts and components at the Wheaton Mid-Winter Hamfest, I decided to keep on going. To make sure I didn't buy anything I didn't need and to make sure that I got everything that I did need I consulted my animatronics mentor, the venerable Kitt Foxx, and had him fill me in on some of the parts and supplies that he used with building his on animatronics creations. Here is a rundown on most of the things that I purchased over the last two days, along with why I picked them up:

From RadioShack:

  • 1-lb. of 60/40 .062 diameter Rosin-Core Solder - Under my current plans, Foxee's wireframe body is going to be constructed out of galvanized steel wire. This is the solder that's going to hold all of that wire together!

From Michael's Art Supply:

  • Fiskars "Softouch" Multi-Purpose Scissors - For cutting fiberglass cloth and metal mesh
  • 22-gauge and 26-gauge Florist's Paddle Wire - Florist's wire was recommended as a great thing to use to temporarily bond the pieces of your wireframe together until they can be soldered by Adam Rigg's Critter Costuming book.

From Home Depot:

  • 10-lbs. Coil of 9-gauge Galvanized Steel Chainlink Fence Tension Wire - This very strong and very heavy gauge wire is what I intend to use to build Foxee's wireframe with. Using this particular kind of wire for building wire frames with was recommended by Adam Rigg's book, Critter Costuming. I actually got a kick out of asking for this wire at my local Home Depot because it is in the construction materials section of the store where you can find all of the huge burly flannel-shirt wearing construction worker type men hanging around. Imagine how shocked they were to see a mad scientist wearing a 2600 Magazine t-shirt hanging out in their section of the store! Just let this be a lesson to you-- when Foxee is built, while she may look cute, fuzzy, and adorable on the outside, on the inside she will be built burly flannel-wearing construction worker tough!
  • Channellock 10.5-inch Fence Tool - This heavy-duty tool contains a staple puller, staple starter, wire cutters specifically meant for steel fence wire, wire stretcher, hammer, and wire splicer. In other words, this tool makes me a tougher man just by owning it, whether I actually use it or not! And I will be using it, because as of right now it is the only tool that I have that can cut through that steel fence tension wire!
  • Stanley PowerLock 5-meter/ 16-foot Tape Measure - I'm planning on building Foxee with metric dimensions, not because this mad scientist has any love for the Europeans or their SI system, but because it just so happens that Foxee approximate dimensions work out nice with metric whole numbers. However, since I am based in the U.S., it's nice to have standard measurements on the tape measure as well so that I can do conversions on the fly when needed.
  • All-Purpose Goop Contact Adhesive and Sealant - For pieces of metal that I don't want to solder together I have this stuff to glue it with instead. I don't really intend on using this stuff very much, and I bought it purely as a backup alternative to soldering. Goop adhesive was yet another material recommended for wireframe construction by Adam Rigg's Critter Costuming book.
  • 3M Emery Cloth - Good 'ol Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing! Those guys make everything from industrial fluoropolymers to Post-It Notes, and here they have done it again by making emery cloth just so that I can abrade metal! Thank you 3M!
  • 3M 60-Grit Aluminum Oxide Sandpaper - I got this to sand down excess epoxy resin and fiberglass shards when I am working with fiberglass. Actually, Kitt Foxx recommended that I get 80-grit sandpaper to do this job, but I couldn't find any. As far as I am concerned, the 60-grit sandpaper that I did get will just get the job done faster, or at least that's what I hope will happen!
  • AOSaftey Fiberglass Respirator - The hope is that these will keep me from inhaling tiny particulate fiberglass shards into my lungs, which I would assume is a very good thing because the last I heard huffing fiberglass didn't give you any kind of radical superpowers!
  • AOSafety Economy Twin Cartridge Respirator - These will keep me from killing myself through asphyxiation while working with noxious adhesives and solvents. Hopefully the fact that this twin cartridge respirator is labeled as an "economy" model isn't something that I should be worried about!
  • Latex Gloves - Protects my hands from bonding them to something that they shouldn't be bonded to with epoxy resin!
  • Sharpie Marker - To label and mark things with, of course!
  • Stanley 24-inch 2000 Series Toolbox - A place to keep all of my great and cool-looking new loot, er I mean "tools" in! Yay!

From American Science and Surplus:

The battery that will be powering my Foxee robot

  • Two 12-Volt 12Ah Sealed Lead Acid Batteries - These two sealed lead acid batteries are going to provide the power for my darling little fox robot, and with dimensions of 5-7/8" x 3-3/4" x 3-7/8" and a weight of 8.6 pounds apiece these two batteries are whoppers that pack some serious punch! While there is a good chance that using batteries this big are overkill, I am going to be running all of Foxee's systems from her servo motors to her internal speakers to her circuit boards to her CD Player off of a single power source, so I wanted to make sure that I had more than enough power to run all of these devices, and I wanted to make sure that Foxee would be able to do multiple performances off of a single battery charge since lead acid batteries take a while to be recharged. I bought two of these batteries so that I could keep one as a charged extra and swap it into Foxee if need be. Since I don't really have any idea how much power Foxee will draw at this time, to get a very rough idea I asked Kitt Foxx how much current his Georgia Belle animatronic fursuit draws during a performance. He answered that Georgia most likely draws no more than a single amp at one time, and that he was able to power Georgia over the course of the entire Further Confusion convention weekend on only one set of AAA batteries. Now AAA-sized batteries on average only carry about 1.05Ah, which means that Foxee with her big 12Ah battery will have almost 11-and-a-half times the battery current capacity that Georgia Belle has!!!! Start your Tim Allen style grunting now, because Foxee will have more power! Having all of this extra power to draw upon is very important, because Foxee will have 6-times as many servo motors as Georgia Belle, and will be powering all of her other systems off of that one battery too!
  • Lifelike Replica of a Coyote Skull - I know what you're saying-- you're going, "What the heck! A coyote skull? What the heck does he need that for!?" I purchased this lifelike molded resin anatomically correct model skull for two reasons. The first reason is that it could be of some use to me when it comes to designing Foxee's jaw and how it moves, but more importantly it will serve as a performance prop for when Foxee and I do our act together on stage after she is built.
  • Mariner brand Saftey and Welding Goggles with Interchangeable Lenses - These circle-framed goggles are the exact ones you see every single mad scientist wearing during their maniacal experiments in monster films from the 1930's and 40's. In short, these goggles are completely awesome looking, and even better, they're the real thing and not some stupid flimsy costume prop. Unless I suddenly take up welding, these goggles will only be a stage prop to go along with my "Mad Scientist's Union Local #3.14" lab coat and heavy lineman's gloves in completing my mad scientist's costume.

Ah, the American Science and Surplus store, the mad scientist's super store! As you can see, I got a whole bunch of neat things from here for my projects like I do every time that I go. You know, you would think that with me buying mad scientist's goggles, heavy duty batteries, a morse code key, a coyote skull, and all of the other weird things that I get there each time that I go you would think that I would catch a few stares, but not there! Every time that I go I ask the owner of the place if she has ever see such a weird combination of purchases as the ones that I just made, and the answer from her is always the same-- that I am one of the more normal people that go there! Go figure!

While I always have a great time going to American Science and Surplus, this time it was even better because I finally filled up my "Surpie" membership card with purchase stamps, meaning that I got a free $15.00 gift certificate from them! How cool is that!? I think I already know what I am going to get with part of that gift certificate too, because they have a Benjamin Franklin action figure there that I have had my eyes on for some time.... Come on-- my main man Franklin's the coolest! Not only do I think that Franklin could kick the other founding father's butts with some serious smack down, but he was a serious pimp with the ladies back in his day too! And if that isn't enough to convince you to go out and buy his action figure right now, it even comes with awesome Franklin battle accessories such as his fabled kite and key! Awesome!

To get back on track, now that I have purchased the items above I have now finally gotten everything that I need to start building the first parts of Foxee's wireframe. I will be installing servo motors, pan and tilt kits, power regulator boards, and other such components as I go along with the construction process. I plan to start at the very least practicing with bending and sculpting wire tomorrow, and if I am successful at it I may start building the frame for Foxee's head! We'll have to see how things go, and hopefully they'll go well! As always, comments are always welcome!

Gearing Up at the Wheaton Mid-Winter Hamfest!

Posted by: The Mad Scientist

I have had a really wild weekend this weekend! While for most guys my age that would probably mean that I had a wild time at some bars getting plastered, for this man of mad science that is not the case. Yesterday I went to the big Chicagoland Fishing, Hunting, Travel and Outdoors Show that took place at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont, Illinois, with one of my fishing buddies, and more relevantly today I went to the Wheaton Mid-Winter Hamfest that took place at the DuPage EXPO center in St. Charles, Illinois. For those of you who may not know what a "Hamfest" is, the term "ham" is a term given to people who are licensed amateur radio operators such as myself, and a "hamfest" is a huge amateur radio, computer, and electronics flea market where hams get together to talk face to face and to buy and swap equipment. Why is this important to my Foxee animatronic robot project? To put it simply, when it comes to building homebrew electronic devices ham radio operators are some of the most active homebrewers out there, building everything form transceivers to antennas to computer interfaces on their own. As a result, a hamfest is one of the greatest places around to get some of the fancy pieces of test equipment, tools, and parts that I need to build electronics projects like the internal components of my animatronic robot fox!

I have been to a hamfest once before, but that was 9-years ago after I first got my Technician-Class amateur radio license back in Junior High School. Because my last hamfest experience was so long ago and because the one hamfest that I did go to was a different one, I didn't quite know what to expect from the Wheaton Hamfest when I got there. They did have a lot of strange and interesting-looking equipment, tools, and parts there, with me not even having a clue about what most of the pieces of equipment were or what in the world they did, but sadly I found that 90% of everything that they had there fell way out of my limited budget. However, I did find plenty of good buys there, and I ended up spending literally every single dollar in my wallet that I had on me, and then digging through my pocket change just so that I could pick up a little more!

For my Foxee animatronic robot project, I pretty much only bought some desperately needed tools, supplies, and one piece of equipment. Upon the venerable Kitt Foxx's suggestion, to aid in my building my Foxee animatronic robot last month I purchased the book Critter Costuming: Making Mascots and Fabricating Fursuits by Adam Riggs. While the book is meant to teach you how to build your own fursuit animal mascot costumes, it covered the basics of metal wireframe construction that I needed to learn how to build Foxee's outer frame. The book recommended that I use steel chain-link fence tension wire to build the frame with, but to work with such heavy wire (the stuff that my local ACE Hardware sells is 9-gauge) you need to have some serious tools. While I was planning to go out to ACE Hardware and Home Depot this week to pick these tools up, luckily I found most of these tools at the hamfest for less than half the cost!

First of all, to cut the heavy steel wire I bought the biggest pair of diagonal cutters that I have ever seen-- this sucker is 10-inches long! If this monster of a tool doesn't cut through that wire, than I will probably need a hacksaw! Secondly, the critter costuming book recommended that you use heavy linesman pliers to bend your wire into shape. I saw two different pairs of linesman pliers available at the hamfest, with one pair being 8.75-inches long and the other being much heavier and 9.5-inches long. Since I have never worked with heavy steel wire before, I had know idea which of the two sizes of pliers would be better suited for my task, so I ended up buying both pairs. I also bought a small pair of needle-nosed pliers to help me with some of the more delicate work, some precision screwdrivers, and 1,000 nylon cable ties, which according to the Critter Costuming book are good for temporarily binding your wireframe joints together before you are ready to solder them.

I also bought one piece of equipment that will assist me in my holy quest to build my own talking and singing robot fox: a Batteries America 12-volt lead acid battery smart charger that charges batteries at 1 battery Amp-hour per hour. When I wrote my original Foxee animatronic robot proposal back in July, I had no idea how to power the thing. Many of the components, circuit boards, and motors required different voltage amounts to work properly, and many had battery clips for their preferred style of battery already physically attached to the circuit board. As a result, it looked like my robot was going to be an electronic mess with a dozen different nickel cadmium and alkaline batteries located throughout the robot. That would have been a logistics nightmare because it would have been nearly impossible to keep all of the batteries fresh and charged, and would dramatically increase the possibility of having a battery fail during a performance or a demonstration, which would be a very bad thing!!!

Since I learned how to build my own DC regulated power supplies last summer however, the possibility now exists for me to be able to run Foxee from a single 12-volt power source and use voltage regulator IC's to provide the appropriate voltages to the appropriate components. With that idea in mind I recently decided to go with a 12-Volt Sealed Lead Acid (SLA) battery for power. They are very inexpensive compared to Nickel Cadmium and Lithium Ion Batteries, are relatively easy to recharge, and provide a lot of Amp-hours of power compared to their cost. I found some extremely cheap Surplus 12-Volt 12-Amp-Hour batteries that were originally from power scooters, and I plan to buy two of them (the second battery will be a spare) to power Foxee with. While I don't have a clue at this time about how many Amps of current Foxee will end up drawing while she is performing in font of an audience on stage, I am guessing that a 12-Amp-hour battery will give me a few hours of power at least, and possibly a lot more than that. We'll just have to see, and if worst comes to worst I can always buy a more powerful battery later. In any case, thanks to today's hamfest, I now have an inexpensive lead acid battery smart charger!

I also bought several things having to do with my ham radio hobby at the hamfest today! Last week on eBay I was able to pick up a Radio Shack HTX-10 mobile 10-meter band transceiver for a good price, and while it came with a SWR/ Field Strength Meter and an external speaker, it did not come with an antenna. So one of the things that I picked up at the Ham Fest today was a magnetic mount 10-meter band mobile whip antenna. Also at the Hamfest I picked up a new 2-meter band mobile radio, a very used Azden PCM-2000. Since that needed a mobile whip antenna as well, I picked up a 5/8-wave stinger for it that could screw into the same magnetic mount base as the 10-meter antenna. Since it is unlikely that I will be operating both of these radios in the same location at the same time, for now the two antennas can share a magnetic base and I can swap between them. Naturally, I would prefer to have a separate magentic base for each antenna, but since the magnetic bases are expensive and this mad scientist is quite poor, this was the only way I could afford to purchase both antennas. Along with the 2-meter moble transceiver and the two antennas I also picked up a MFJ Versatuner II antenna tuner, some dipole antenna insulators, and some essential (yet unfortunately very expensive) cables and adaptors to power all of my new ham radio toys and make them work together so that they are not all just really expensive paper weights!

While I did have a very neat time at the hamfest today, unfortunately today wasn't all fun and games. My Heathkit OS-01 Oscilloscope, the one featured in my blog post "My Life in Stereo", started to malfunction today. The CRT beam focus now no longer works, leaving the signal line on the scope very wide, dim, and blurry. While this oscilloscope was only my backup scope and all I was doing was playing my stereo system through it, it was still one of my favorite toys and I would really love to get it working again. While I have learned quite a bit about solid state electronics over the past year from my building an Apple I microcomputer replica and working on this Foxee animatronic robot project, I am completely at a loss when it comes to working with vacuum tube-based electronics such as this ancient Heathkit oscilloscope. As a result, I decided to ask the members of the "Night Patrol" net on Argonne National Laboratory's W9ANL repeater if any of them knew what was wrong with my oscilloscope and what I could do to fix it, but no dice. None of them could tell me what was a matter with my oscilloscope off hand, and the best that they could reccommend was to check the unit for blown vacuum tubes, which was something that I already knew that I most likely would have to do. *Sigh* Now I need to find someone with a vacuum tube tester who will be able to check my tubes for me, and I don't even know where to start.

While having my first oscilloscope casualty today was a real bummer, overall today was a fantastic day and I got a real head start with buying a lot of the tools that I am going to need to power Foxee and to build her metal frame. While since last fall I have been unable to do much work on my Foxee animatronics project due to the extreme lack of funds caused to me by Midwest Furfest, I recently obtained some more funds that I could put towards my Foxee project from doing some Information Technology consulting work and from doing some electronics repair work for people on the side. Because of this I have once again started rolling forward on this project, and it is a very good thing to because I was starting to get cabin fever from not working on my Foxee animatronics project for so long! This week I plan to purchase everything that I need to start building Foxee's frame, including 10-pounds of 9-gauge steel fence tension wire, 22-gauge paddle wire, her SLA battery packs, and possibly some plywood and an electric jigsaw. The bottom line is that I have been inactive on this project long enough, and I would really like to try to start building her frame before the month of January is up! As always, any comments aout my project or this post are welcome!

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Fox, The Mad Scientist, and The Robot

Posted by: The Mad Scientist

I just got back from seeing The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe for the second time in a week, and I have to say that I absolutely love that movie! I rarely go to see movies in the theaters at all anymore, so the fact that I saw this movie twice really means something! Honest to God I just can't stop thinking about it! Why am I so in love with this particular movie you ask? Well for starters, its opening scene with the Luftwaffe Heinkel He-111 bombers attacking London in the middle of the night with flak, tracers, and search light beams filling the screen was enough to make this movie catch my attention all by itself! I am a huge military history buff, and the special effects and cinematography of that scene was just awesome! It was much better than the similar shot of Junkers Ju-87B Stukkas shown attacking London in the beginning of the Disney animated feature film Return to Neverland, which was in that aspect anyway a Narnia knock off.

As great as the opening scene of this movie is, it still is't what has gotten me all excited about this film. What has gotten me on cloud nine is the CG animated animal characters in this movie, especially the talking fox that was voiced by actor Rupert Everett. Considering the fact that I have only been trying to build my very own realistic talking fox in the form of my Foxee animatronic robot project, actually seeing one that looked extremely realistic on the big screen was practically a mind blowing experience for me! The words just escape me about how cool the fox was! And if having a talking fox wasn't great enough for this film, I also have a huge soft spot for cheetahs, and there were plenty of CG cheetahs in this film as well! One thing that I especially enjoyed in this film was how the humans, animals, and mythical creatures work, fight, and live together side by side and treat each other as equals. Now if only the humans on planet Earth could get along so well with one another.... To say that I found this film to be inspiring for my own animatronics and animation work is an understatement! In fact, I am sure that I will both be talking all of my friends' ears off about this movie and be having Narnian talking foxes in my dreams for many months to come!

So that you can see what I am talking about, here are two screen captures of the CG animated talking fox from the film:

The fox from Narnia talking to the children and the beavers about the mission given to him by Azland around a fire.

The talking fox from Narnia bidding his friends farewell.

The pictures above show the absolutely amazing CG-animated talking fox from the movie The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. In this scene the fox is telling his friends about the special mission that Azland the lion has sent him on. I found this incredible talking fox to be very inspiring for my animatronic Foxee robot project!

I apologize for how small these film captures are, but this was the best that I could do. The CG animated fox character is unfortunately in none of the promotional pictures for the movie, so I had to use Paint Shop Pro to take some screen captures of the fox while he was being shown in a behing the scenes online mini-documentary movie at the official Narnia website. These small pictures don't do this incredible fox any justice at all-- you have just got to see this fox in motion on the big screen! Now I just need to work on finding a way to get my Foxee animatronic robot to end up looking this good when she's finished!

Another ecperience that I had recently that I also found to be very informative and inspiring was my visit to Robert King's house last Saturday. Robert King is the person responsible for founding the Midwest Furfest furry convention back in 2000, and he has a lot of friends in the furry fandom. With the Further Confusion furry convention in San Jose, California rapidly approaching, many of Robert's fursuiting friends had a lot of last minute construction to do on their new fursuit costumes for the convention, so Robert hosted a huge social gathering for them all to get together and pool their resources to get their costumes finished over at his house. I am not a fursuiter yet with no current plans on becoming one, but my animatronics mentor Kitt Foxx was going to be there working on his latest animatronic creation at Robert's house as well. Because of this, Robert was kind enough to invite me over to his house as well so that I could watch Kitt Foxx work on his new animatronic fursuit with the hope that I could pick up a few pointers from him.

I have to say that Kitt Foxx's brand new animatronic fursuit that he is going to be debuting at Further Confusion is absolutely awesome, and that she will be an awe-inspiring sight for sure when she makes her premier at Further Confusion! I wish I could go into great detail describing every great amazing thing that this incredible new animatronic fursuit can do, but I swore to secrecy so I am limited to telling you only the information that he released previously during the Midwest Furfest Head Construction Panel.

This new fursuit of his is definitely a step up from his Georgia Belle vixen animatronic fursuit that he wore at Midwest Furfest back in 2004! While the Georgia Belle animtronic fursuit could only do pre-recorded audio and servo motor actions that were from a program disk much like a more technilogically adbvanced Teddy Ruxpin doll, Kitt Foxx's new female raccoon suit uses a model airplane type radio remote control to control the fursuit's animatronic actions. A second person (known as the "handler") standing nearby the fursuit performer controls the suit's facial expressions with this radio controller, allowing the person wearing the fursuit to concentrate on his body acting and allowing the fursuit's animatronic facial actions to respond spontaniously and interact with people around the suit! It truly is an amazing setup, and I am sure that it is going to delight and amaze the attendees of the Further Confusion convention! Boy do I wish that I could be there to see it! I had an absolutely wonderful time with Robert, Kitt Foxx, Aeto, and all of the other wonderful costumers that I spent the day with and learned a ton of useful information from them, and hopefully the next time that I see them I will have enough of Foxee completed so that I can amaze them as well! As always, any comments that you may have are greatly appreciated and encouraged!

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