The Curse of Macros

One of the things that’s fun about amateur radio is the opportunity to meet people, talk with them, exchange information, learn from each other, and just plan shoot the breeze.

Oh, I enjoy the experimenting, tinkering with new antennas, learning the science behind radio technology and all that. But it’s the people who share the hobby that make it really interesting.

That’s why I get so irritated when operating in digital modes. Everyone seems to be running software with pre-programmed macros these days. I keep seeing the same things over and over again. Operator created on such and such a date, rig is (insert model of your choice). Antenna is this. Software is that… Your RST is 599. Thanks for the contact. 73s…

It’s all over in 30 seconds. The two people ‘chatting’ never even touched a keyboard, just clicked the mouse on macro buttons that sent pre-recorded messages. I can understand doing that if you’re contesting and trying to rack up points by making as many contacts as possible. But the whole contact is so meaningless that you might as well just relegate the whole thing to the computer and just have the computers scanning the airwaves, picking out call signs, sending reports to each other, while you go watch television or weed the garden.

Come on, guys. Just start whacking away at the keyboard. Forget the macros. Tell a joke, complain about your car. Brag about your equipment. Tell the funny story about your brother-in-law and the badger. I’ll tell you what happens when you put 120 volts through a Z-80 CPU (Helpful hint: wear eye protection).

The technology is interesting, true, but it’s the people that make it fun

First look at the Kenwood TS-990S


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While I really like my TS-2000, I wanted something more sophisticated (i.e. more buttons and knobs and shiny bits). I was at the AES show earlier this year and they had the new TS-990 on display, and immediately lusted for the thing. This isn’t really a review of the 990, more of a first impressions kind of thing. I’ve only had it a little over two weeks and I’m still trying to learn all the various options.

Physically the radio itself is impressive. It’s big. I mean really big. Shipping weight is around 60 pounds according to the label. As for size, it’s about the size of a computer tower laid on it’s side. It takes up a lot of desk space. In fact, I had to get a bigger desk to hold it. The one I had the 2000 on just couldn’t handle it.

It’s extremely well made. The fit and finish is superb. Well, considering the price it had better be, eh?

And it is an intimidating piece of equipment, even for a geek like me. Two brilliant video displays (the big one a touch screen), 16 knobs to fiddle with, and a mind bogglingly large number of buttons, most of which have multiple functions, and 14 “soft” buttons which are labeled on the big screen and whose functions change depending on the mode of operation you’re in, and you get one complicated piece of equipment.

Fortunately, basic functionality is not that difficult to figure out, and within an hour of unpacking the rig and reading the first couple of sections of the manual (which frankly could use a bit of work) I had it up and running and working quite nicely, thank you very much.

First a word about the manual. It needs some help. It’s incomplete in some areas. In others it’s obvious that whoever translated it from it’s original language (probably Japanese) wasn’t all that fluent in some areas. All of the essentials are there, but you’re going to have to do some digging and some reading between the lines to figure it out. Don’t despair, though, you’ll get there eventually. (Maybe. I have yet to figure out how to get the sub-receiver to work properly.)

But let’s get on with this, shall we?

Build quality is excellent. Cosmetically the rig was flawless out of the box. One thing that impressed me with both the 2000 and now the 990S is how well it feels. It’s something that’s difficult to describe. When I was looking at the Yaesu and ICOM high-end transceivers at AES, one thing that struck me negatively was how cheap the controls felt. The knobs wiggled, the buttons were mushy and loose. It felt like you were using a mass-market toy picked up at Walmart, to be honest.

Not so with either of the Kenwoods. Everything on these radios is rock solid and substantial. The knobs are solid, with excellent feel and no side play at all. They move with silky smoothness and feel substantial and reassuring. Same with the buttons. They’re rock solid with excellent tactile feedback.

The front panel may look intimidating, but actually it’s laid out with considerable thought, with various controls arranged into logical groupings.

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My favorite mode of communications is PSK31/63, so I was curious about the 990S’ built in decoder/encoder for these modes. Basically just plug a USB keyboard into the front panel of the transceiver, kick it into PSK mode, hit the Decode button, tune the frequency you want to use, and away you go. Nothing could be simpler.

It works pretty well, but I’m not about to abandon Fldigi. It took me all of three seconds to begin to badly miss the functions I had on the computer, such as automatically filling in my log, call sign look up and all of the macros. The 990 does have memory slots you can pre-load with frequently used text strings for transmissions, but they aren’t real macros.

Still, it does work nicely and I made a few contacts shortly after learning how to get into the PSK mode.

There are some issues, though, one of which is tuning. You can see the waterfall display to the right of the text screen in the photo above. See that nice clean signal? Seeing signals like that is very, very rare. I took that shot when the noise level was extremely low. Normally the waterfall is so filled with noise that it’s almost solid yellow across the entire display. I can hear a signal, but can’t find it visually.

It also seems to have some issues decoding. Weak signals that Fldigi can decode quite nicely, don’t even show up. I can hear them, I can see them in the waterfall display, but the 990 won’t get a ‘lock’ on the signal and begin decoding. All I see is random noise.

Something similar happens with extremely strong signals. it seems to overwhelm the decoder. Fldigi can deal with them quite nicely, thank you, but not the 990S. So while it can do PSK pretty well, I’m not going to be abandoning the computer any time soon.

I’m sure as I gain more experience with the almost overwhelming number of filter options I can gain some significant improvement in the reception area, but at the moment it’s easier to just us the computer.

Speaking of computers, the 990S is ready to hook to a computer right out of the box. It has a network connector, USB port and RS-232 port on the back. While it isn’t exactly what i’d call “plug and play”, it was far easier to get it working with the computer than the 2000 (which I still have issues with)

Kenwood has rig control software for the WinOS available as a free download from their website. Nothing is available for Mac or Linux, of course. I dug out my cheap Toshiba Win7 laptop and tried it, and the software does work. You can control pretty much all of the radio with it, but frankly it’s of limited usefulness, at least for me.

On the Win7 machine I tried Ham Radio Deluxe, which was an utter failure. Fldigi worked, of course, because it relies primarily on sound input/output and doesn’t need to directly control the radio. Flrig didn’t work at all.

The problem is that the 990S just hit the streets in March, I think, and no one seems to have updated their software to work with it yet. I tried a variety of Kenwood protocols without success on the Win7 machine.

Curiously, Fldigi and Flrig both work with the 990 on the Mac. Sort of. I’ve been using the TS-2000 protocols in Flrig and it sort of, almost, kinda works. At least to the point where I can change frequency from within Fldigi/Flrig. (pretty much nothing else works for rig control, but at least the frequency will change correctly, which is better than nothing).

Why does it work on the Mac and not on the Win7 machine? Well, pretty much nothing works on the Win7 machine when it comes to my amateur radio software. It loses drivers, crashes, can’t find com ports… The list of failures goes on and on.

I have it at the point now where changing frequency in Fldigi will change frequency on the TS-990. However, only when Flrig is running at the same time. And changing frequency on the radio itself does not cause the frequency in Fldigi/Flrig to update. Nor does Flrig recognize any of the radio’s settings. But it does allow me to change frequency with the click of a mouse rather than having to punch in frequencies manually on the radio.

THis is getting a bit longer than I’d intended, so let’s wrap it up.

What it all comes down to, is the TS-990S worth the money? This is one hell of an expensive radio, after all. This thing will set you back around $8,000. For me it is. I became addicted to amateur radio the moment I started. But for others who aren’t as active, probably not. You can put together a complete ham station for less than the cost of this single rig. It all depends on your wants and needs. The 990 is an exceptionally fine piece of equipment and I’m having an absolute blast with it, and in the long run that’s what matters.

fldigi help (radio stuff so everybody can ignore this)

Saw your posting about PSK31 and stuff. I got fldigi installed on my macbook air and it’s up and running fine. Wanted to put it on my iMac too and thought the easiest thing to do was just copy the configuration files, but I can’t find them! Where in the world does fldigi keep the blasted thing?

Ah, you discovered that, have you? It’s OSXs fault. The program keeps all of the configuration files in a folder called .fldigi and that’s where the issue is. OSX apparently things that any folder that starts with a . is a system file and should be invisible. It’s there, you just can’t find the dopey thing. I ran into the same thing when I wanted to put it on my iMac and couldn’t find it.

You can make the invisible files visible. Go to this website:

He’s got instructions on how to do it.

Oh, and make sure you change things back to invisible again! You DO NOT WANT TO MESS WITH INVISIBLE FILES under normal circumstances!

Yet another PSK31 setup

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I’m still experimenting with PSK and this is a quick snapshot of the setup I was playing with today. Again, cheap and quick and dirty, using stuff I already had in the house; my Macbook and the USB microphone adaptor plugged into the Kenwood.

This system works a lot better than the iPad version did for several reasons. First, the audio output quality of the laptop is better, allowing me to turn on the radio’s VOX system so it transmits automatically when I want to send something. Second, the Macbook is much, much more powerful, and the software’s level of sophistication reflects that.

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I’m running Fldigi on the Macbook and it works quite well indeed. All of the iPad apps I’ve seen are limited to working with a single type of digital communication; RTTY, PSK, CW, etc. Fldigi works with all of them. Plus it includes an enormous number of bells and whistles, like built in logging capabilities and, if you have the right interface, even control of the radio right from the program itself.

Unlike the iPad software I was running, Fldigi doesn’t just decode the selected stream in the waterfall, it decodes all of them, at the same time. In the screen image above, it’s simultaneously decoding four separate transmissions at the same time. 

The question, of course, is does it work? And the answer is yes, even with the cobbled together setup I’m using here. In the short time I was playing around with it, I made two contacts, one in Oregon, the other in California. And that was with my transmit power dialed down to 25 watts, and feeding my Comet vertical antenna, which some people claim is little more than an over priced dummy load.

(Interestingly, I’ve made far more contacts with PSK31 running my cobbled together equipment than I have on voice)

Once I get the actual interface between the computer and radio up and running, this could get real interesting.

Bare Bones PSK31 setup

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So I’m a grouchy farmer so why all this stuff about amateur radio? Because we still have snowbanks 4 feet high around here despite warming temperatures, so I mess with radio stuff.

I’ve been using an iPad app called PSKer which works far better than it has any right to. It ‘hears’ the PSK31 tones from the radio and decodes them, and when you type something in, it sends the PSK tones out the speaker. But background noise is an issue. I am now using Apple’s camera adaptor with the USB connector on it, with a USB microphone adaptor plugged into that. The output from the speaker on the radio goes into that, and bingo, a nice, clean display without any hash from background noise.

Unfortunately I still haven’t got things set up for transmit, hence the microphone aimed at the iPad’s speaker. It works. Sort of. But just having a truck roll by outside can cause havoc. I need to get the output from the adaptor into the microphone inputs on the radio, and hopefully figure out how to trigger the PTT circuits at the same time, or perhaps use the radio’s VOX capabilities to deal with triggering transmit.

This will give you an idea of what you can do with little or no money, though. Except for the Kenwood, everything else was stuff I had laying around the house already; iPad, camera adaptor, USB mic adaptor, etc. The only thing I actually had to buy was the PSKer software, and that was all of about $3.

Me and Furniture

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We’ve been doing upgrades to the house. Well, to be honest it seems that all we ever do is do upgrades to the house since we bought the place. It’s sort of a running joke between my wife and I. I wanted a new ranch house, all sleek and modern and brand new. She wanted a house with ‘character’. Well, she got her wish with this place. It’s got ‘character’ all right, as I remind her every opportunity I get when she complains about the uneven floors, out of plumb door frames, etc. Great fun!

We’ve decided that now that the dog is too old to climb up on chairs and shed all over them and rip fabrics with his toenails, and that the cats have turned out to be reasonably well behaved and aren’t going to shred our furniture, we need to get some new furniture. I hate to say it, but all of the commercial stuff we’ve looked at has been either way, way too expensive, or, frankly, crap.

So, what does this have to do with the two photos? Well, the table and the chair are mine. I made the table — must be 10, 11 years ago. It’s made from white ash harvested from trees that went down on my father-in-law’s farm decades ago and which were stored up in a shed until I got my hands on the stuff. Most of it went into a wardrobe I made for my wife’s sister and her husband as an anniversary present, and what I had left over went into this table. I liked the design, with the kind of quirky way the table top is cut out around the tops of the pyramid topped legs.

The Morris chair is made from white oak and is the most comfortable chair in the house. The extra-wide, flat arms were designed deliberately so people can set things on them when they’re sitting. They’re also made extra strong, thanks to the corbels that support the arms and the fact the bottom of the arms are mortised their entire length and fit into the top rail. I made them extra strong because I knew people would be tempted to perch on the chair arms.

Anyway, ‘she who must be obeyed’ has decided there is going to be no crap commercial furniture. It has been decided that I am going to make a mission style sofa to match the chair and table.

Well, we’ll see.