Ham Radio: Satisfaction at Last

Saturday, July 3, 2010 Posted by

So it turns out I couldn’t hear anything on my backyard horizontal-wire antenna because I had it hooked up to a handheld walkie-talkie tranceiver. In brief: those things can’t decode the sidebands used on the low frequencies, and have horrible sensitivity and selectivity. As soon as I hooked up a “real” HF tranceiver (my new ICOM IC-7200), I could hear people chatting on all sorts of long wavelengths. Amazing!

At this point, I took a business trip to Atlanta with my handie-talkie in my bag. From the 20th floor of my midtown hotel I finally was able to make my very first contact to a local area ham over 2 meter FM. He welcomed me to the hobby and we blabbed for a while. The next night I participated in an Atlanta area multi-way chat session over a repeater. My enthusiasm only increased after this.

Back at home in Chicago, I finally made my first couple of contacts over the 20 meter band: first to St. Louis, then to central Ohio. And tonight, I’ve made contacts with New York, Maryland, and Massachusetts as part of a special 4th of July weekend “event” — a game in which you try to contact specially planted operators in each of the 13 colonies. If you reach all 13, you get a special certificate. I thought this was silly at first, but after reaching three, I started getting eager to hunt down the fourth! Maybe these contests are more addictive than I expected…

I finally made contact with some local hams as well, using a Chicago-area repeater on top of the Standard Oil building downtown. They were quite welcoming, asking me to meet them at their monthly meeting or every-Saturday brunch at a local diner. I think it’ll be great to get some direct support from people nearby, rather than pestering my mentor over email all the time!

I wonder if anyone has ever actually written an ethnography of amateur radio culture. (Clare, do you know?) It’s been a fascinating jump into the deep-end of a very specific set of rituals, jargon, and history. Some initial observations I’ve made:

  • 90% of those participating are retired men. Much like my love of banjo and barbershop quartets, I seem to have yet again confirmed that I am an old guy at heart.
  • The country seems populated with tons of amateurs like me with “small” transmission power (between 5 and 25 watts), and a few diehards with “big” transmission power (anywhere from 500 to 1200 watts). When scanning the bands, the typical scenario shows up over and over: some big-gun is asking for contacts, and dozens of small fish are screaming all at once to be recognized, hoping they’re heard in the crowd. The big gun chooses a lucky minnow, they exchange callsigns and say hello, log each other, and then the crowd starts screaming again. It’s like the big gun is the pretty girl at the party — everyone gathers around and wants to chat with her. Perhaps this is why hams quest to build ever more powerful antennas in their backyards; more transmission power creates more popularity!
  • Because the communication mode is simplex (you can’t transmit and receive at the same time, like you can on a telephone), people have a very special set of rituals for “passing the microphone” back and forth. For two people chatting, it’s the usual junk you hear truckers say on CB radio: they end their statements with “over” or “back to you”. But in 3 or 5 way chat, people pass control around in a very polite circle. When people get the floor, they tend to ramble and pontificate for at least 2 minutes before passing it on. The conversation ends up sounding more like a set of parliamentary speeches, rather than guys sitting around at a bar.
  • That’s the news from the field for now. More to come.

Ham Radio: the saga continues

Sunday, June 6, 2010 Posted by
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In part one of the story I talked about how I got hooked on amateur radio overnight, crammed some textbooks for two weeks, and passed my Technician and General exams. With a newly-issued FCC callsign in hand, it was a bright future ahead!

Well, two weeks later, and I’ve still not made a single successful contact with anyone. It’s been frustrating. I started out ordering a small handheld walkie-talkie radio (“HT” is the lingo). Hams use these for VHF/UHF socializing within a radius of a dozen miles or so. For three nights I listened to hams chatting around the Chicago area, but whenever I tried to transmit and say hello, they couldn’t hear me. At one point someone thought they could hear me and asked me turn “turn up the power”, but I was already at the 5 watts maximum. Then the INTERNET told me that the standard rubber-duck antennas that ship with these tiny radios can’t hit the side of a barn. No problem. I order a much nicer, longer antenna with rave reviews. But nothing gets any better — I still can’t hit a repeater 4 miles away on the top of a Chicago skyscraper in the heart of downtown. What gives? Do I need to build myself a handheld directional antenna, like a mini-dish I can aim eastward?

Meanwhile, my mentor (or ‘elmer’ as hams call it) popped in to visit today from Virginia. He brought with him a special 40-foot long wire which works as an antenna on the low-frequency, long-wavelength radio bands. These are the wavelengths which travel hundreds (or even thousands) of miles by bouncing around off the ionosphere. All you have to do is string the wire across the backyard about 30′ up, and then run a coax cable into the tip of it. The other end of the coax cable goes into your radio. Well, my buddy wasn’t kidding about how you “always remember an antenna hang”. It was like doing a barn raising! It took us all afternoon.

We started by going into the alley and tying a heavy weight (in this case, a dead wall wart) to a piece of string. Wife and wee boys all gathered round to watch.

From antenna hang

Of course, we had the official Antenna Book from ARRL, a worthy tome to give us luck.

From antenna hang

With great dexterity, my friend flung the rope into the tree, but missed a couple of times.

From antenna hang
From antenna hang

Eventually I gave the throw a shot and managed to get it exactly through the right spot in the tree on the second try. Then we had to reel up the official tie-line.

From antenna hang

Next, we took 120 feet of RG-8X coaxial cable and pushed half of it through a hole in our basement window. The hole was conveniently left there after I asked AT&T to come over last week and remove our completely unused land lines. We could even reuse the braces going alongside the house and upwards! Of course what I’m not showing here is the hour of soldering PL-259 connectors to each end of the cable. 🙂

From antenna hang
From antenna hang

Once the cable reached the window of my son’s bedroom, I was ready to drill an eyelet outside the window as a ‘launch point’ for the antenna, and plug the coax feed line into it. I’m sure my wife didn’t mind me drilling into the house at all.

From antenna hang

…and then screwing in a hook…

From antenna hang

In the end, the antenna was pulled up to the hook and now looks like this from the back porch.

From antenna hang

…which is actually much less conspicuous than the power line. In fact, if you stand on the porch and look across the backyard, you can’t even see the antenna line.

From antenna hang

In that picture above, the line on the left is the power line. The antenna line on the right goes through the tree and is just too thin to see!

And now for the second disappointment. After that whole afternoon, we went down to the basement and plugged our walkie-talkies into the new super antenna and tried to listen to the low frequencies. Nothing! That’s right, instead of hearing people talking, we heard nothing but static and reflected images of overpowered AM stations. Now Chicago is definitely overcrowded, RF-wise. But something is definitely weird and wrong. Neither of our radios could hear anything, and even after dark (when the ionosphere works better for bouncing long wavelengths) things only barely improved. We have no idea what’s wrong, so I may invite another ham over with Big Desktop Ham Radio to see if things are really messed up somewhere, or if the handheld radios are just too awful to isolate signal from noise.

One thing is certain: this hobby is going to take a lot of patience.

Studying Ham

Sunday, May 9, 2010 Posted by

My dad used to be into scanning police conversations, and I recently found his old top-of-the-line 1994 scanner in an old box in our basement. I spent a weekend trying to fix it — taking it apart, trying to replace parts, etc. I eventually gave up in frustration, but before running out to buy a new scanner my wife suggested I ask to borrow one from a co-worker first.

So I did. I put out an email to all the engineers in my office, and one of them lent me a nifty handie-talkie (a Yaesu VX-3R) and a giant instruction manual. Sure enough, I was able to scan, but was curious about the “PTT” button he told me not to push. Next thing I know I’m listening to net meetings over local repeaters! A few days later, I find myself reading the ARRL Technician textbook, and thinking “hey, this is basic high school physics!” Not so hard at all.

I’ll be taking the Technician exam in a week or two, so I can buy my own HT. But my goal is to (probably) upgrade to General and put up an antenna somewhere, so I can use HF to chat with specific friends across the country who I only (just this week!) discovered were licensed hams.

It’s sort of incredible — ham culture is like this ancient geeky brotherhood that secretly infiltrates all other nerdy hobbies. I’m discovering swaths of friends and acquaintances (gaming friends, Google co-workers, open source people) who all have callsigns, sort of a secret handshake. And reading about the culture in the exam textbook is fascinating — someone ought to write an ethnography of this group!

Quack in a Box

Saturday, May 1, 2010 Posted by
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This is my plug for my friends’ new card game. If you’re not a boardgamer geek, you may want to move on.

We first met Chris and Clare about four years ago, as they were neighbors in our Chicago neighborhood. We were thrilled to discover they were gamer geeks like us, and our two toddlers became great friends too. Clare is an anthropologist, and Chris is an ER doctor. And together they designed a great new card game based on their travels.

This is the story they tell (no doubt retold and twisted a hundred times): for Clare’s PhD field work, they moved to a rural area of the Andes mountains in Bolivia. While Clare did research and interviews, Chris took up a job in a local medicine clinic. One day somebody came into the clinic with a headache, and one of the other doctors sent him away with antibiotics. “Why did you give him antibiotics for a headache?” Chris asked. Answer: “Well, that’s what we had today.” Hmmmmm.

So Chris got inspired. He created a hilarious card game where each player takes on the role of a corrupt doctor. Everyone is dealt a patient with some sort of ailment, along with a hand of completely random “treatment” cards. The object of the game is to play as many treatments on your patient so as to make as much money as possible, but without killing the patient. (It’s tricky, since some treatments help, some harm.) The game is brilliant and hysterically funny, and I’m thrilled they’ve finally announced a professional printing of the game! That’s right, you can order it right here from their site. I’m going to do everything I can to get independent game stores to stock it. 🙂

Diving into Lighting & Portraiture

Sunday, April 11, 2010 Posted by
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OK, so I really love photography. I loved it as a child, and as a teenager I loved my high school photography class. We learned to shoot with simple full-manual SLR cameras and then develop black and white film in darkrooms. I even had a darkroom in my parents’ basement. Somehow I “lost” the hobby for twenty years, and only came back to it in my 30’s when I suddenly felt compelled to take decent pictures of my toddling kids. From there, it’s been back down the slippery slope; the basic theory hasn’t changed and all the math-y algorithms still work for me, but now the equipment is just way more fun!

In retrospect, one of the reasons this hobby works so well for me is that I can seamlessly incorporate it into my daily life with kids; the camera comes with on trips, walks to the park, etc. My former pseudocareer — composing music for theater — required hours of unbroken solitude in the music studio. Until my kids get (much) older, I don’t have that level of free time anymore. So I’ve gravitated toward another hobby that dances around the delicious conflict between art and science (exactly as music composition does): you can’t do photography well without really understanding the science and tech, but it’s also worthless without some sort of passion/vision to inspire your creations. The challenge is to balance these two.

So as a birthday present from Frances, I signed up for a one day, 7 hour class on “Lighting and Portraiture” at the local Calumet store in Chicago. Here was a chance to learn a touch more science, and a whole lot more artistic technique around portraiture, which is where my main interest lies. The class was taught by Bill Skinner, a guy with 25 years of insane wedding-photography experience and a sense of humor to prove it. He’s one step away from a standup comic, a great teacher who listens and really makes sure people are following him. I enjoyed him so much that I may sign up for his repeating classes. If you live in Chicago and want to learn photography, TAKE THIS CLASS!

Bill had two basic theses for his class:

  1. If you’re serious about photography, you need to be thinking about light all the time. You need to be aware of it, shape it, sculpt it, and make it a deliberate part of your composition process. Photography is about painting light, and so you need to think of light as your main medium, not something that accidentally happens.
  2. Modern cameras and flashes make automatic guesses about everything: color balance, proper exposure, focus. For any random scenario in which you click the shutter, it makes these guesses accurately about 80% of the time. That may be fine if you’re throwing spaghetti at the wall (taking hundreds of near-identical photos) and you’re using trial and error to see what “sticks”. But serious photography is about remaining in control of all the variables, not throwing the dice and hoping it usually works. You should get exactly what you want 100% of the time by NOT TRUSTING the camera and making these decisions on your own, for each and every picture you take. Just as a painter doesn’t use brushes that are “close” and hope for the best, and a photographer doesn’t trust a machine to make close guesses on his/her behalf. Be in control.

We spent a while talking about color temperatures, quality and quantity of light, and how to control flashes properly. We learned about reflective vs. incident metering. We learned about different tools for manipulating light, and we even had a model show up for live demos. Bill started by taking us outside and showing us the model’s face under direct, harsh sunlight. Definitely a case of “raccoon eyes”:

From Lighting and Portraiture Class

Then he held a nice diffuser-disc over her head to demonstrate how much better it was with the light spread out over her face:

From Lighting and Portraiture Class

We then went to shady areas, which gave us the same diffuse light. And practiced reflecting light from the disc back up into her face:

From Lighting and Portraiture Class
From Lighting and Portraiture Class

Though my favorite was using the gold reflector. When combined with the warm background, it really made her skin-tone glow:

From Lighting and Portraiture Class

And then a shot from the side, in partial sun and shade. Proof that with a light meter, you can properly expose someone even when they’re mostly backlit:

From Lighting and Portraiture Class

Then we went indoors, where Bill demonstrated oodles of fancy lighting equipment (“monolights” and various hood attachments.) I especially liked the affect of partially lighting her face, but then shooting a narrow beam against the back of her head, just to light up her left cheek:

From Lighting and Portraiture Class

And here’s an example of simulated cloudy window light, using a “soft box”:

From Lighting and Portraiture Class

Finally, we talked about the four different ways of lighting a face. Woo, new vocabulary!

Split lighting: half of face is light, half is dark.
Rembrandt lighting: light is 45 degrees both above and to the side of the face, causing the signature triangle of light underneath the darker eye.
Loop lighting: Light is 30 degrees both above and to the side of the face, allowing light to break into the darker half, in a loop around the mouth.
Butterfly lighting: Light is straight into face from above.

We also talked quite a bit about which angle to shoot a face from: “broad” means to shoot mainly the lit half of the face (to make the face seem larger/wider), and “short” is about shooting the darker side, which has a slimming effect. We spent quite a while talking about general body posing techniques too, and the various flattering effects they could have.

So aside from all this new knowledge about lighting tools, lighting positions, posing techniques, flash operations, here are the main behavioral takeaways for me:

  • I should stop trusting my camera’s light meter and use a real handheld light meter. Reflected light is not nearly as accurate as incidental light, and a real light meter doesn’t do stupid things like try to force every picture to be 18% gray on average, or accidentally meter the wrong part of the image.
  • I’m going to stop using a gray card to do color-balancing and use an ExpoDisc instead. Why? The ExpoDisc has two distinct advantages over the gray card: 1. While both techniques require me to take an extra color-calibration photo before I begin shooting, the ExpoDisc requires no further post-processing on the computer. 2. The gray card is reflected light, which can vary based on angle; the ExpoDisc reads the incidental light directly.
  • Instead of putting my flash on automatic, dialing a shutter speed and f-stop and hoping for the best, I’m going to use the flash on manual mode now. I know its Guidance Number now (140 at 50mm-zoom), so I can compute in my head exactly where I need to stand and how to set my f-stop to get the perfect flash exposure of the subject. I can set my shutter speed as an afterthought, depending on how much I want to expose the background. (At last, I have a 3-bits” explanation of how to remain in total control of a flash!)

Bill says he’s going to be offering a followup course where we get to do some hands-on practicing of these techniques. That should be really fun.

An Interactive Fiction Gathering

Thursday, March 25, 2010 Posted by
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I’m flying to Boston today for a dual work/fun trip. I’ll be hanging out at the local Google Cambridge office. I’ll meet with some teams. But the fun part of the trip is visiting the PAX East gaming conference that goes through the weekend. It’s a bit like Gencon, but smaller and more focused on videogames than roleplaying games.

Why PAX East? Because for the first time in the ~15 year history of the indie interactive fiction (IF) community, a large number of us are finally congregating in meatspace. Most of us only know each other from mailing lists, competition entries, game reviews, and chatting on a MUD. The fantastic Andrew Plotkin (a major technical and creative leader in the IF community) is setting up a hotel suite for people to gather in and geek out over interactive fiction. It’s not just for longstanding community members though — we’re hoping to evangelize newbies from the conference and get them excited about the genre. We’ll be demoing games, passing out CDs, coins, cards, and even doing some mini-talks.

My own schedule and agenda is deeply entwined with this event:

  • Thursday night: dinner with IF folks.
  • Friday morning: I’m giving an academic talk on the history of IF at the Google Cambridge office. I’ve given it twice before and it always is a huge success — there are a lot of closeted fans out there who show up. Interestingly, when I gave the talk in Mountain View, Don Woods (co-author of Colossal Cave Adventure) showed up to listen. And for my Cambridge talk, Marc Blank (author of Zork and co-founder of Infocom) will be in the audience. Who knew that these guys work for Google? It’s weird to give a talk on computer history when the historical figures keep showing up to listen. 🙂
  • Friday afternoon: watching a panel discussion on interactive fiction, which includes prominent community members as well some original Infocom alumni. I’ve been asked by SPAG Magazine to do some basic photojournalism and make some pictures of this event. I’ve got a new monopod to try out with my telephoto lens…
  • Friday night: the premier of GET LAMP, the new documentary on the history of Interactive Fiction! It’s done by the same guy who did that excellent documentary on 1980’s Bulletin Board Systems. Should be really fun. I’ll be taking photos of the post-screening panel discussion as well.
  • Saturday: hanging out in the IF suite. Gonna try doing the Speed IF contest with Jack, put up wall portraits of all the participants, play some games, watch some discussions.

I should also direct readers to a new website for IF virgins. If you’ve never tried interactive fiction, head on over to the Play IF site, and you’ll see that Andrew has posted a bunch of “newbie friendly” games that you can play directly in your web browser. See what it’s all about… it’s come a long long way from Zork. 🙂


Saturday, March 6, 2010 Posted by
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What makes Frances excited about springtime:

What makes me excited about springtime:

Another Interactive Fiction Contest Win!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010 Posted by

It’s old news now, but our second text adventure has won a second contest. If folks haven’t figured it out by now: our secret weapon is a secret cadre of crack beta-testers, copyeditors, and writing critique-ers. They are invaluable! You haven’t tried the game yet, you can play it in your browser right now. Type ‘help’ to see all the people who helped us out.

In other Interactive Fiction news:

  • Jack and I were recently interviewed in an IF e-zine about our history and writing process
  • Jack and I will be attending an historical meeting of all the big IF personalities at PAX East at the end of the month. I’ll be taking lots of photos, so stay tuned for stories coming out of that conference.

Another text adventure released!

Monday, February 1, 2010 Posted by
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Jack and I had great success with our first text adventure game, Rover’s Day Out. It won first place in the 2009 Interactive Fiction Competition last November. I figured we were done for a while; after 5 months of furious coding and testing, we could take a break and start brainstorming up a sequel for next summer.

But no, Jack found us another competition to get into. Just before the new year, he insisted we get going on a “one room escape-themed” game for the Casual Gameplay IF Competition. But it was due January 31st! Could we scrape together a one-room game in only 5 weeks?

Answer: yes we could, and did. But it was a bit nuts.

We spent the first week arguing about the plot and puzzles, over videoconference and in shared notes. We spent the second week actually writing the “finished transcript” that represented the final game we wanted. Jack very cleverly solicited writing feedback from at least six peers in the IF community; at least two or three were folks that hated our first game, so it gave us some great perspective on our writing style and sense of humor. For the third week: code, code, code, day and night. We then spent the last two weeks fixing bugs from beta-testers. In other words, it was the same basic development strategy we did for our first game, just compressed down to 1/5th the time.

So without further ado, head over to the Hoosegow Game Site to try out our game! This game is much smaller and quicker than Rover; it’s designed to be played in a single lunch break, rather than over many hours. We did this because the game is going to played and judged by a much more casual gameplaying audience who aren’t as familiar with the text adventure genre. We also did some old-school things, like award points for solving puzzles. 🙂

If you’d like to judge the competition, take a look at the main competition link above. You need to play at least 5 competition games for your scores to count.

Let us know how you like it!

Flickr widget, hooray.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010 Posted by
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Cool, I’ve now got wordpress plugins installed that not only show my recent tweets in the sidebar, but my recent flickr photos too. Try hovering the mouse over the photo!