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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!"

I've Been Promoted to General!

Posted by: The Mad Scientist

A General Class FCC Amateur Radio License that is! Tonight I took my Element 3 written exam for the license at the DuPage Amateur Radio Club volunteer examination meeting, and I was able to pass the exam on my first try despite the fact that I had only covered about two-thirds of the study material in my Gordon West General Class examination preparation book! I held a Technician Plus class amateur radio license before, which gave me transmitting privileges on many VHF, UHF, and microwave radio frequency bands and some low-power transmitting privileges on some tiny portions of the shortwave radio bands, but now with my new General Class license I can transmit on the vast majority of the shortwave bands at a peak envelope power of 1500 Watts! That is more than enough power to talk to other amateur radio operators across the globe, and even bounce radio signals off the moon and back to earth! Now if I could only afford an HF radio transceiver that could take advantage of my new license privileges.... In any case, for the next week over the air instead of identifying myself as just my normal radio call sign "KB9MFT," I can identify myself as "KB9MFT Temporary AG," which will let others know that I recently upgraded my license!

While I am not a very active amateur radio operator these days because I am so busy working on my artwork, animation, animatronics, and electronics, if you are interested in hearing me on the air I occasionally pop onto "The Night Patrol Net" run by the Argonne Amateur Radio Club every night at 10:30PM. The Night Patrol Net is run on the W9ANL Repeater Station, which is located on the grounds of Argonne National Laboratory just north of Lemont, IL with a output frequency of 145.19 MHz and a input frequency of 144.59 MHz.

Press Any Key to Continue....

Posted by: The Mad Scientist

In my Foxee™ Animatronic Character 2005 Midwest Furfest Variety Show Act Proposal post to this blog I mentioned that one of my preliminary projects that I was going to do that was designed to help teach me the skills I would need to have in order to build my Foxee animatronic robot was to learn woodworking by building an authentic Apple I wood case for my Replica I clone microcomputer. The internal frame of Foxee is going to be made largely of plywood, and as a result I need to have some skill with a power jigsaw in order to construct this. Since a simple Apple I-style computer case is a lot easier to construct out of wood than a robot fox skeleton, I decided that constructing the wood computer case wood be excellent jigsaw practice before I tackled the more daring project. Unfortunately, there was one major thing that was keeping me from constructing my Apple I computer case-- the lack of an Apple-I compatible keyboard to mount into the case!

Steve Wozniak's 1976 Apple I Microcomputer used an ASCII-encoded keyboard with a STROBE line. Such keyboards were relatively inexpensive to find parts for and build in 1976, but in 2005 trying to find the parts to build such a keyboard became nearly impossible unless you were willing to shell out some serious money to a cutthroat obsolete electronics components dealer. There were two other easy ways to get an authentic looking ASCII Keyboard that was Apple I compatible and would as a result work with my Replica I kit computer. The first route is to be lucky enough to find an ASCII keyboard that was pulled out of either an original Apple II or Apple II+ computer, but these keyboards are scarce at best because the Apple II's and Apple II+'s are in themselves collector items now. Keyboards from an Apple IIe, which are as common as stink, will not work unmodified with a Apple I because Apple IIe computers use binary matrix encoded keyboards instead of ASCII-encoded keyboards.

Another solution is to take a matrix keyboard, like the one from the Apple IIe, and either hook it up to a custom hand-built ASCII encoder circuit board or hook it up to a microcontroller that would translate the values from the keyboard to their ASCII code equivalents. I decided to go with this seemingly easier second option. I thought that finding some new old stock keyboards from 1970's and 80's microcomputers would be the hardest components to find, but as it turns out they were fairly easy to come across and I very quickly acquired a keyboard from a Texas Instruments TI-99/4 microcomputer and a keyboard from an Apple IIe "Platinum Edition" microcomputer. Then the devastating truth hit me: I found out that the parts needed to build your own ASCII keyboard encoder board cost tons-- far more than I could afford-- because of all of the rare components that it used. In addition, using a microcontroller chip to translate keyboard values would also cost me quite a bit for parts and for purchasing a microcontroller programmer, and then I would have to figure out how to program the darn things. That would be completely time consuming, and I was very short on time.

Everything looked glum for my Apple I case project after that until I ran across a classified ad of all things for a rare Apple II ASCII keyboard! The rare keyboard cost me an arm an a leg, but it should be directly compatible with an Apple I more or less, however it looks like I may have to do a little bit of wiring to hook the keyboard and the computer together. The keyboard is from fairly early in the original Apple II computer's production run and has "Apple Computer Incorporated, ASSY NO 01-0341-01, MADE IN USA" silk-screened on the front of the PCB, "P C BD 02-2239-01 REV B" silk-screened on the back of the PCB, and "INSP. JUL 6 1977" stamped on the back of the PCB in black ink. You can see a photo of the Apple II keyboard here:

The Apple II keyboard that I purchased

As much as I wished that my ASCII keyboard troubles were over, I still have one more hurdle to go. The schematics I have that show how to hook an ASCII keyboard up to my Replica I kit computer show hooking an Apple II+ keyboard up to it. The Apple II and Apple II+ keyboards are noticeably different with different wiring going to their output connector, which means that I will have to find some schematics for my Apple II keyboard so that I can determine how to wire the two devices together. Hopefully such information will be easy to find, but if my past experiences hold true, it won't be. In any case, I will keep you posted on my progress, and if worse comes to worse there are always those two matrix keyboards that I now have laying around that I can mess with in a pinch!

I Love the Smell of Ozone in the Morning!

Posted by: The Mad Scientist

Here it is, 5:30AM in the morning, and I have just pulled an all-nighter. What could I have possibly been doing all night you ask? Soldering elctronics and listening to this week's Off The Hook and Off The Wall 2600 Hacker radio talk shows in WinAMP! In yesterday's Foxee Project Blog entry I mentioned that I had purchased an Exact Electronics Type 240 Function Generator from a scientist who worked at Fermilab, and that the function generator needed a little bit of soldering work to get it into workable condition. The problem with the function generator was that it had no wall plug on the end of its electrical cord, and that I had to solder a new one on. That would have been as easy as matching wire colors and soldering the like wires between the plug and the function generator together if the wires on the cheap three-prong power cord that I bought from American Science and Surplus used the standard wire color-coding scheme for alternating current wires, but the cord didn't so I had to look the information up online. I have never really worked much with household 120V alternating current before, so I wanted to make really sure that I had my wiring right, that I had no bear wires showing at my splice point between the two cords, and that I wasn't going to screw up by crossing some wires and as a result blow up my fancy piece of equipment.

After some searching online I found a website that told me what I needed to know. Alternating electrical current is a completely different animal when compared to direct electrical current, and because of that I found out that the wiring colors of each of the leads is of an AC power cord is different from its DC counterpart. Instead of the wires being red and black for positive and ground, AC plugs have a black lead that is the "hot" lead, a white lead that is a neutral lead, and a green lead that goes to ground. To find out which lead was which on my non-color coded plug I checked the resistance of each lead to each prong in the plug with a multimeter until the reading given by the multimeter read near zero. A near zero reading indicated that I had closed a circuit, and that I had found the lead that matched the prong that I was testing.

After soldering the power cord together and insulating it with electrical tape, I decided to hold my breath and plug the function generator into the wall power outlet, hoping that the vacuum tube-filled device wouldn't explode, catch on fire, or smoke due to some technical error on my part! Instead, the power light on the unit turned on, and all of the vacuum tubes inside the function generator began to glow and get very warm. While I haven't been able to test the function generator with an oscilloscope yet to see if it is really working since I lack the hook-up wires to do so, I will take the glowing tubes and the heat as a positive sign that it is, and that I soldered the power cord on correctly. Pretty soon I will be looking into getting some probes and hook-up wires to use with my new function generator and oscilloscopes, and then reading some tutorials on the operating my new instruments so that I can use them effectively to troubleshoot my electronic circuitry!

Bringing Out the Heavy Equipment!

Posted by: The Mad Scientist

Nothing makes you feel more like a mad scientist than buying several enormous pieces of electronic test equipment out of the back of a guy's car trunk, and that's exactly what I did today!!! The man I bought the equipment from was a scientist from Fermilab who I met at the DucKon 14 Science Fictiion convention way back in June. At the convention he was one of the people running the "Build-a-Blinkie" workshops where you soldered together little blinking LED pins that you could wear, and he also gave a demonstration of his 400,000-volt Tesla coil that could throw 12-foot bolts of lightning in the Science Fiction convention's parking lot.

Being that it happened to be close to Fermilab, we decided to meet and do our exchange at of all places the American Science & Surplus store, which is like a mad scientists' paradise in and of itself! The pieces of heavy duty equipment that I bought from him for my robotics, radio, and electronics work were as follows:

  • Heathkit Laboratory Oscilloscope Model OS-01 from The Heath Company
  • Hewlett Packard Model 130BR Oscilloscope
  • Type 240 Function Generator from Exact Electronics Inc.

The function generator could use a little bit of soldering work in the form of soldering a new three-prong plug onto it so that it can be plugged into a wall outlet, but other than that the equipment I bought was said to be in working order. All three of these electronic devices are large, heavy, and use vacuum tubes, and two of them were designed to be rack-mounted. These tools have many uses in the field of electronics including many troubleshooting applications, and if worse comes to worse and I can't find a use for one of the two oscilloscopes, I could always hook it up to my stereo and watch the waveform of the music! In the meantime it has been a very long time since I used an oscilloscope, so I am going to have to hit the Internet to see if I can find the manuals for these puppies. Giving myself a refresher course on the operation of oscilloscopes and signal generators by reading through their manuals will get myself up to speed a lot quicker than the "Ooh! What does this button do?" approach!

While I was at the American Science & Surplus store I also picked up a few odds and ends for the electronics work that I have been doing these days or plan to be doing very soon. Unlike the last few visits to that tore that I have made, I didn't purchase very much this time. The big item that I picked up was a bicycle electroluminescent wire kit, which contained a small 2 "AAA" sized battery powered power-inverter and two foot-long blue electroluminescent strips that could be stuck to something with adhesive. I bought this as a cheap example of electroluminescent material technology that I can play with before I start moving onto building things with the more expensive professional-grade electroluminescent wire, which I plan to use with future robotics projects.

I also picked up a cheap laser pointer to use with some electronic schematics that I found on the Internet. These schematics showed how to send an audio signal through the laser with amplitude modulation from the headphone output of a sound source to the microphone input of a stereo system or computer sound card! While I don't plan to be building such a device anytime soon, I figured that I might as well buy a cheap laser pointer while I was at the American Science & Surplus store. Another thing that I bought was another mono-headphone because tons of my electronics projects call for wiring a device up to a mono-headphone jack, such as the above mentioned laser pointer data transmission device, my audio-pickup inductor coil, and my magnetic stripe card reader. What I do is just lob the headphone part off, toss that aside, and use the wires and the 3.5mm jack for my projects. It's always useful to have a few of these on hand since I seem to use them all of the time. Some other things that I picked up at American Science and Surplus were some battery holders that I can use to power my electronic projects, and plenty of cheap Alkaline batteries to put into them.

Along with the things related to my electronics and robotics work that I purchased today, I also received my brand new DIY Electronics K149 Version E USB Serial PIC Programmer kit in the mail yesterday! In an earlier blog entry I mentioned how the company Electronics123.com had originally sent me an older version of the kit than the one that they advertised on their website, and I wanted to make sure that I had the absolute newest version of the kit available so I made them exchange it. To their credit, the people at Electronics123.com did send me the correct kit after I asked for it, and reimbursed me for the shipping that I had to pay to send the older kit back to them. So at the very least this company showed that it valued customer satisfaction!

As far as my Replica I microcomputer wood case "practice project" goes, I will be purchasing my Apple II ASCII keyboard and encoder board a little later this week, and as soon as I get paid for some PC repair work and some artwork commissions that I am doing, I will start buying the wood and the power jigsaw that I need to start building the case with and teach myself the art of woodworking (and hopefully not chopping my fingers off in the process)! As always, I very much appreciate to hear any comments that you have about my projects, and thanks for reading!

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