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The Foxee Animatronic Robot Project Blog

Archives for: February 2012

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!


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