Amateur Radio Stuff: What’s Going On

It’s been quite a while since I mentioned mentioned amateur radio, but that’s been because of a lack of time, not a lack of interest. Things back in the radio room are about to get — interesting, as they say. I’m facing a situation that every amateur radio operator does sooner or later, having to tear down everything.

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It’s even worse than this looks here. There are two more desks crammed into that room, an old drafting table, three book cases, a work table… It’s bad.

The radio room is, to put it bluntly, a mess. There is equipment piled everywhere, test gear shoved onto book cases or in drawers, amplifiers and radios laying on the floor, piles of printouts of manuals, booklets, stacks of mystery electronics in those anti-static bags, drawers full of connectors and parts, coax jumpers, meters, microphones, tools three full sized computers, three printers, all my Raspberry Pi stuff. There are cables and wires snaking along behind the desks, running into holes in the floor. The operating position is too cramped and awkward. The old drafting table my solid state amp is parked on it is too tall and too small, the desk the radios are on is in poor condition. The list goes on and on.

So everything is going to get torn down, moved out of the room. The room is going to get a good cleaning, etc. Then I start trying to put everything back together.

What sparked this is that MrsGF found a huge old teacher’s desk, made out of solid oak, for $50 at St. Vinnie’s. MrsGF already has one of these and I’d been looking for one for a while. The finish isn’t very good and it has it’s share of scratches and scars, but it is rock solid, lots of big drawers, and is long, wide and deep. That is going to get moved in, some of the old, particle board crap I’ve been using is going to go away before it collapses under the weight of the equipment, and then I can start trying to put everything back together again.

If I can remember how to do it… Meters, jumpers, wires, coax. You’d think I’d know enough to label all that stuff, right? I mean I have a label maker laying right there. But no, of course I didn’t. Sigh…

Anyway, Monday is the day when I start all of this. It’s taken me three years to accumulate this mess and put together that rat’s nest of wiring behind the desks, so this could take a while…

 

Changes… And New Toy… And My Mind Wanders. Again

IMG_0167This is my new toy, a Raspberry Pi 3. If you want to experiment with building evil robotic minions to help you to take over the world, this is a good place to start. It has a 64 bit, quad core ARM A53 processor running at 1.2 GHZ, a gig of RAM, 4 USB ports, an HDMI port, LAN port, WiFi, reasonably good graphics and sound, and runs a version of LINUX. It can connect to the outside world to enable the computer to hook up to sensors, relays and controllers to make evil robots to allow you to take over the world, control devices, record data from sensors and all sorts of fun things.

And it costs a whopping $35. Less than what it would cost me to get a good meal at that fancy restaurant a couple of blocks from here. Hell, less than what just a bottle of wine would cost over there.

Now this, on the other hand… Well, not on the other hand because you couldn’t pick it up with one hand, but you get the idea. This is the first computer I ever owned. It is a Ohio Scientific C2-8P, and if you’ve 2ecd9544af30be5a0d4d8f7926065484never heard of it, I don’t blame you. Ohio Scientific is just one of many, many computer makers that tried to get into the home and small business market back in the late 1970s through the mid 1980s, and failed. It did better than a lot of them did, but eventually it failed, along with Atari, Commodore, Apricot, Coleco, Exidy, Franklin, Panasonic, Radio Shack/Tandy, Sinclair, Texas Instruments… Well, the list goes on and on.

Mine wasn’t even as good as the one in the photo over there. Mine was an early version that didn’t have the fancy paint and logo on the front. And it was nasty. It was about the size of a microwave oven, packed solid with circuit boards the size of a sheet of paper, each of those stuffed with chips of various types, all hooked together with miles of ribbon cables and wiring.

Mine was kind of odd. Kind of? Ha! It was seriously odd. I’d never seen anything like it before or since. I suspect it was an experimental unit that had been heavily modified. According to the photocopied documentation I got with it, it could support three different processors, a 6502, 6800 or 8080. Or maybe a Z80. Don’t remember. It was a long time ago. They were selected via a rotary switch on the back???? Really? Seriously? I never knew for sure. There was only one CPU board in it when I got it. There was a big rotary switch on the back but it wasn’t wired to anything. I think they had some kind of scheme where the switch would select one of 3 CPU boards connected to the backplane, but since there was only one CPU board and the switching system wasn’t connected I have no idea what the hell they were trying to do.

Why 3 different CPUs? I suspect they intended to use it as some kind of development and/or testing system for different types peripherals. The documentation I had was originally typewritten, with hand written notes in the margins, and then had been photocopied. It was interesting, that’s for sure. Large parts of the machine were wire wrapped and hand soldered so someone had been in there fiddling around. A lot.

It came with a whopping 4K of RAM. I spent hours hand soldering chips to the memory board to bring it up to 8K. The company I bought it from found an extra 8K RAM board for it and gave that to me. It was, of course, unpopulated, so I spent many more hours hand soldering RAM chips to the extra board.

Data storage was on a cassette tape. It read/wrote data to a cassette tape at a whopping 300 baud using the Kansas City Standard (if you know what that is, you really, really need to get out more and get a life). That’s 300 bits per second… Oooo, the excitement! To load the editor/assembler program so I could program in assembly language took 20 minutes. Video was black and white, text only, going to an old Panasonic B&W TV set that I had to re-wire to handle the video input from the computer. The company I bought it from offered to give me a “real deal” on the matching 8 inch floppy drive system for it. I passed because I could have bought a pretty good car for what they wanted for the thing.

What did it all cost? By the time I got it up and working (sort of) I probably had well over a grand invested in the thing.

In a way it was completely worthless, that computer. I never actually did anything genuinely useful with it. But on the other hand, if you count the intangibles it was worth every penny because I taught myself programming in BASIC and assembly language on that beastie. I learned how to solder IC chips to circuit boards. I learned how to hunt down failed components (capacitors failed all over the place on that thing for some reason). I learned why storing data on cassette tape is very, very nasty. Trying to get that thing running and keeping it running taught me more about the technology than all the computer science classes I took in college.

And I learned how to make my own Faraday cage because it put out so much RFI it screwed up every TV and AM radio in the area when I turned it on and had build one around it just so I could use it.

Now, where was I? How did I get off on this? Sheesh, I was going to talk about changes in technology, make pithy remarks about how almost no one back then foresaw how computer technology would evolve, morph into what it is today where computers are literally everywhere, in every aspect of our lives.

Instead I end up doing this ramble down memory lane babbling about a relatively minor player in the early computer market… Sigh.

Damn, I hated that computer. Wish I still had it.

 

 

Amateur Radio Tools and Test Equipment Part Three: Test Equipment

(Note: This rather quickly turned into an article about stuff you don’t need and why you don’t need it, rather than about stuff you do need. So it goes…)

Now there is a whole slew of test equipment some people claim you need. And you go out and spend your hard earned money on it and find that well, no, you didn’t actually need it. The fact of the matter is that unless you’re really into electronics development work, need to diagnose and repair some rather expensive and complicated equipment, you don’t really need much more than a volt/ohm meter and a couple of other items. And this is coming from someone who admits he has a — a problem, shall we say, when it comes to tools and test equipment. Basically I see a new tool or piece of test equipment my eyes glaze over, I start to shiver uncontrollably, instinctively reach for my credit card…

What do you really need? Well, at the top of the list is a decent volt/ohm meter of some sort. Usually abbreviated as VOM or DVM for the digital versions, or multi-meters. It’s pretty much an essential tool. But which one do you get? They come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, all kinds of different options, and prices that range from little more than pocket change to “OMG who the hell can afford that”.

You don’t need to spend a fortune on a VOM, but you don’t want to get one of the bargain basement varieties out of the $2 bin at the lumber yard either. For the average electronics hobbyist you can get a perfectly good VOM for around $30 – $40. I wouldn’t spend more than $150 or so on one for one unless I was, oh, repairing equipment on a professional basis or something like that.

Which one do you get? Well, if you’re me — all of them… Okay, that’s an exaggeration butScreen Shot 2017-03-18 at 7.43.09 AM
the fact is that I have about a dozen of the dopey things laying around, from small pocket models smaller than a deck of cards to bench top models and even rack mounted units. Including one of these over there on the right. I don’t think I have it any more and it never worked in the first place and I have no idea where the thing even came from because I don’t remember buying it. (I think people break into my house not to take things, but to leave me things so they don’t have to pay recycling fees…) And it wasn’t even a VOM come to think of it but some kind of frequency counter or something…

Never mind, let’s get on with this.

The kind you do need is your basic VOM, something like one of these over there on the left. IMG_0020The Fluke is the one that lives on my workbench and that I use the most often these days. The Radio Shack model… Well, heck, I probably have a dozen RS meters because when I was a technician out in the field things happened… Oh, brother, did things happen. And RS stores were just about everywhere and the stuff was cheap and reasonably good.

Anyway, something like that Fluke will set you back about $150. The RS model is a lot less. Think I paid about $40 for that one something like 15 years ago. It seems about as accurate and useful as the Fluke, so why did I buy the Fluke? Well, it’s — it’s so shiny

They both do pretty much the same things for the most part. Both have replaceable probes/leads. And yes, you need that. You do not want a meter that has the leads wired directly into the meter. Accidents happen – melted probes, broken, frayed wires, melted wires… Stuff happens. (You did remember to unplug the equipment and discharge those high voltage caps, right? Hmm?)

Another piece of test gear that is pretty much essential for the amateur radio operator is something called a dummy load. No, this is not a truckload of ventriloquists dummies. Nor is it a load of politicians. It’s a sort of, oh, let’s call it a radio black hole.

When you’re testing and/or working on a transmitter, you have to actually transmit with it. And you need to hook the output of your transmitter up to something that can suck up the power or it can either damage your transmitter or send potentially illegal radio transmissions out into the air and enormously irritating the FCC. Or your neighbor who suddenly finds all of the electronics in his/her house going wonky.

A dummy load is really just a big, heavy duty resistor or resistors that absorb the power being dumped out by your transmitter and converting it to heat. Nothing magic, just basic physics. You can probably build your own if you like. There are tons of examples out there. Or you can buy one. Ones that can handle under 100 watts of power are out there for well under $100, some down in the $30 range.

If you fiddle around with amplifiers like I do, you’re going to need something that can handle a lot more power because those big HF amplifiers can potentially put out well over 1,500 watts. One of the cheapest methods of dealing with it was the so-called “cantenna” which was basically a paint can with a big honking (that’s a technical term, honking, you know, like ginormous, or widget, or doodad) resistor sitting in a gallon of transformer oil used to cool it. They’re still on the market and they do work pretty well. You can pick them up for under $100.

If you don’t like messing around with all that oil and stuff, you can get fan cooled dummy IMG_0027loads that can handle higher power, but you’ll pay for it. Something like the Palstar over on the right will set you back around $375 or so. A bit less if you can find one used. I think MFJ makes one as well.

Which one do you need? Well, as much as I like the DL2K I’m the first to admit that you don’t need one unless you do a lot of fiddling around with high power amplifiers. At the time I picked this one up I was doing just that and it was very, very useful. But most people don’t mess around with amplifiers that often and you can get away with something a hell of a lot cheaper. Even if you do use amplifiers, one of the “cantenna” type dummy loads will probably work just fine for you at a quarter of the cost.

That’s the thing with some of this equipment. It’s very handy to have around, and IMG_0017sometimes you absolutely have to have it. But you’re going to use it so rarely that you wonder if it’s worth the cost. It’s like this thing, my antenna analyzer over there on the left. It is a genuinely useful gadget for analyzing the performance of antennas, feed lines, helping determine antenna lengths for specific frequencies, etc. but how often do you really need one?

They aren’t exactly cheap. A good one will set you back about $300 or more. And while they are very useful indeed, I hesitate to recommend you buy one because chances are good you don’t really need one. I picked it up because I love messing around with antennas. I have three antennas in actual use at the moment and have about five more I want to put together and set up or am planning on building and experimenting with once the weather gets a bit better. So for someone like me having one of these makes sense. But even I don’t use it all that often. In fact, as often as not I lend the thing to other amateur radio operators who are setting up antennas so they don’t have to go to the expense of buying something they’re only going to use once or twice.

That brings me to this thing, another piece of test equipment you probably don’t need but really, really want, the oscilloscope. Look, I know you want one. You really, really do. It has all those fun IMG_0019buttons and knobs and that fancy display and it’s just so cool. But do you need one? Probably not. I’ve had this thing for like three years now. How often have I actually used it for anything serious? Twice. Twice in three years. Sheesh…

This isn’t the first ‘scope I’ve owned, either. I’ve had various “old school” CRT based models of various vintages over the years, and to be perfectly honest, I’ve almost never used any of them. They look really, really cool sitting there on the workbench. Sometimes I’ll turn it on and smile at it, pet it, scratch it behind the ears, tell it that it’s a good ‘scope and give it a treat, then turn it off and go back to whatever I was doing. But actually use it? But owning an oscilloscope seems to be, oh, like some sort of right of passage for a lot of amateur radio people. Having one of these sitting on the workbench means you’re “serious” about it, not just fiddling around.

That’s the problem with a lot of the test gear out there. It’s often something you’ll only use once or twice, and that’s it. So is it worth investing hundreds of dollars in something you’re going to use once in ten years?

Unless you’re really into circuit design, equipment repair, experimentation, development work, etc. most of the fancy test gear you see out there isn’t going to be very useful.

How often are you going to need a spectrum analyzer? Probably never unless you’re repairing a lot of equipment. Or a function generator? I’ve got one of those as well. I’ve never used it. At least that one didn’t cost me a fortune because I built it myself.

Now I’m not saying you shouldn’t buy the stuff, but make sure you really need it and can afford it before you pull out the credit card. You might also be able to find a super cheap version of the test equipment that isn’t very sophisticated or even isn’t very good, like some of the cheap oscilloscope kits out there, but which will work well enough for what you need it for.

You can often borrow the stuff from a local amateur radio or electronics hobbyist if you can find one. We’re typically friendly people and once we know you aren’t going to go running off into the night and selling off our stuff on eBay or something, we’re generally more than willing to lend you stuff.

 

The Echo from Amazon

screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-8-39-44-amI’ve been curious about the Echo from Amazon for a while now, and I finally broke down and bought one, suspecting that like most of the high tech gadgets I end up with, it would be an enormous disappointment. I’ve heard all the ridiculous hype, and in the vast majority of cases, ridiculous hype is exactly what the claims for these products turns out to be. But in the case of the Echo, well, it seems to pretty much live up to all of the hype. I’m having a lot of fun with this thing.

I didn’t really expect much from the Echo at first. About the only reason I bought it was because it’s supposed to be able to link to Amazon music and I have Amazon’s unlimited music service.

So this thing showed up on my doorstep two days ago and I get to work setting it up. Amazon doesn’t exactly make this easy. You apparently can’t just plug it in and turn it on. You have to download an app for an IOS or Android device, and use that to set it up. So right off the bat I’m irritated because I didn’t remember anything in the product descriptions that said you had to have a cell phone or tablet just to use the thing. It turns out that apparently you can activate it from a computer by going to a website. But Amazon never said that anywhere that I could see in the product description either. I didn’t find out about that until I was searching for answers to problems I was having.

I installed the app on my iPad, but not without some misgivings because the app has one of the worst reviewer ratings I’ve ever seen and the first five reviews on the app store claimed that the app either didn’t work at all or had major problems. This did not bode well, as they say.

Still, it did work, and setting it up wasn’t that difficult. The instructions in the app were fairly simple to follow, and after typing in passwords, linking it to my home WiFi network and all that fun stuff, it was up and running.

Now I’ve never had much luck with speech recognition systems in the past. Siri, for example, can’t seem to understand a word I say. I thought it was just me, but apparently she can’t figure out with my wife or sons say either.

The Echo, though, was an entirely different story. The default code word to get the Echo’s attention is Alexa. You say Alexa first, followed by what you want it to do. So I said “Alexa what’s the weather for tomorrow”. And a pleasant feminine voice told me what the weather was going to be.

Damn, this thing actually works?

I tried other requests, using my normal voice, normal pronunciation, at various levels of loudness, and… Well, damn, it just — just worked. The voice recognition on this thing is, for me anyway, amazingly good. And it worked even when the ambient noise levels were fairly high. I run air filters, fans, various equipment back here in the office, and it never seemed to have a problem understanding what I said, even when I was talking quietly.

What I bought it for, though, was easy access to music. I have Amazon’s unlimited music service (extra cost option for Prime members which claims to be able to stream “tens of millions of songs” for just eight bucks a month) and I’d never really used it for very much. So I started messing with the Echo and seeing what I could dig up.

So for giggles I said “Alexa play The Laughing Policeman”. And it did. Okay… Play songs by Al Jolson… And it did. Play the latest Katy Perry album. And it did. Play Court of the Crimson King, and it did. Apparently there really are tens of millions of songs in there.

But back to the Echo, because that’s what this is supposed to be about.

It can answer some questions, not all, but there is a significant amount of information linked into the system.

It’s linked into TuneIn, so it can live stream a large number of radio stations. It has the current weather and weather predictions for every place I’ve asked about. Can read me the news. It’s even linked to my Kindle library and can read my Kindle books that have the audio enabled.

It has other capabilities as well. It can set alarms, links to Google Calendar, and has other “skills” (i.e. capabilities you can add to the Echo via the Alexa app that are usually associated with spending more money, like buying stuff by voice)

This thing is impressive.

Problems? Well, sure, there are always problems.

The Alexa app gave me some problems. After I used it to initialize and set up the Echo, the app refused to re-connect to my Echo. Every time I started the App it would try to go through the entire setup procedure again.

After spending a significant amount of time trying to find answers to that problem, I resorted to the old standby, unplugging the Echo and plugging it back in. Bang, now the app worked fine.  once I got that sorted, the Alexa app has caused me no problems at all. If you bring it up it shows a list of voice commands the Echo received, what music you’ve used it to listen to, you can control the volume of the Echo with it, pause the Echo’s playback, other goodies like that.

The only other real issue I have is audio output. The built in speaker isn’t bad, but it certainly doesn’t compare to the speakers in a good stereo system. My big 1980s era Pioneer speakers are much, much better. Even my Bose system’s speakers are better. The Echo has 2 inch speakers, for pete’s sake. I don’t care how good the technology is, trying to get high fidelity sound out of a 2 inch tweeter and a 2.5 inch woofer… well, sorry.

But the Echo has no external audio output unless you resort to buying extra cost options from Amazon. None. Can’t even link bluetooth speakers to it. You’re stuck with the Echo’s built in speakers. If you want to hook up external speakers, the only option is to get something like the Tap or a Dot from Amazon.

The Tap is a battery operated speaker/microphone to listen to/control the Echo. But that will set you back $130, for crying out loud. You might as well spend the extra money and get another Echo for $180.

The other option is to get a Dot, a hockey puck sized gadget which will set you back $50. It seems to be a downsized version of the Tap. It is also battery operated and requires an external charger. The Dot will connect to an external bluetooth speaker or via a standard audio cable. And at $50 it’s a lot less than the Tap, but come on, really?

According to the Echo’s specifications, it has bluetooth capabilities built into it. It can link via bluetooth to receive audio from your phone or tablet, but it can’t send audio to an external speaker without you having to spend at least $50 for the Dot? Really? I’m sorry, I don’t believe that for a minute.

I should point out that the Echo’s speakers aren’t bad, even at high volume levels. Considering how small they are, they are pretty good. But even a mediocre external speaker system would do better.

Overall I’m surprisingly pleased with the Echo. The voice recognition system is amazingly good. The sound quality, while not outstanding, is acceptable for casual listening. It’s great for doing metric conversions like how many feet are in a meter and things like that. It can answer some questions. It does pretty good at math, too. It can give you the news, weather and sports. Ask it sports scores.

Mostly I use it for music and radio. It’s been able to play just about any radio station I want to hear.

Note: Some of the music services require you to have the Amazon unlimited music service. Other music is restricted to Amazon Prime accounts. So what you have access to via the Echo is going to vary depending on whether or not you’re in the Prime program, etc.

IDC: Smartphone shipments flat for the first time; Samsung widens lead over Apple in Q1 2016 | VentureBeat | Mobile | by Emil Protalinski

Smartphone vendors shipped a total of 334.9 million smartphones worldwide last quarter. This figure is up just 0.2 percent from the 334.3 million units in Q1 2015, marking the smallest year-over-year growth on record. We saw hints of this in yesterday’s Apple earnings report, when the company reported an iPhone sales drop for the first time.

Source: IDC: Smartphone shipments flat for the first time; Samsung widens lead over Apple in Q1 2016 | VentureBeat | Mobile | by Emil Protalinski

That cell phone sales have flatlined shouldn’t surprise anyone. The advances in technology that drove a lot of sales has slowed to a crawl. Where once each generation of phone being released offered impressive improvements in ease of use, processing power, storage, etc., the last few generations of phones have offered almost nothing new to the users. Most of the improvements made over the last two or three years have been incremental, almost unnoticeable to the user; slight improvements in the cameras, a bit better screen resolution, slightly faster processors, small increases in available memory.

So with most, if not all of the improvements to the phones now being so slight as to be virtually unnoticeable to the end user, why bother to upgrade? The only reason I upgraded to an iPhone 6 was because my ancient iP 4 was on its last legs, and I got one hell of a good deal on it. Otherwise I’d still be using it. My wife is still quite happy with her elderly iP 4, and she’ll keep using it until it expires because there is no reason for her to change.

The same thing is happening in the personal computer industry. Sales are flat, even declining, because there have been few, if any, new technologies introduced that people want or need.

The Rise and Fall and Rise again of HeathKit and Radio Shack

The story of the rise and fall of companies like HeathKit and Radio Shack is a fascinating and complex subject. I’m going to restrict this to the comeback of both companies. One is almost certainly doomed to failure. The other might manage to hang on and perhaps even succeed.

Let’s look at HeathKit first.

I began getting emails from the company that were a bit, well, odd and, frankly, stupid. Vague announcements that said nothing, press releases that seemed to promise a lot but if you actually read the words, said, well, nothing… They had a web site! Hooray! But there was, well, nothing on it. They kept issuing press releases that promised new kits, upgrades to old kits… Sort of? If you ignored the fact that the tiny, tiny type at the end hinted that, well, maybe not…

Finally, at last, HeathKit is back! Hooray! Yippee!

Yeah, well, don’t get out the champagne just yet, because after all the years of the hype, all of the build up, all of the promises, what we got is this…

Screen Shot 2016 04 04 at 4 06 00 PM

Yeah, that’s it. An AM radio kit. Oh the joy, oh the rapture… Break out my blood pressure pills someone before I faint…

An AM radio kit. For $150.

Note the ultra clean, modern hipster design that eliminates all those unnecessary bells and whistles. Like labels. Or a dial indicator to tell you what frequency it’s tuned to. Or a volume control. Or some kind of indication that the thing is even turned on.

Well to be fair, you don’t need a volume control, I suppose, because it doesn’t have a speaker.

Oh, there’s a speaker for it, or there will be one “real soon now”. A powered amplified speaker. At extra cost, of course. Oh, goodie…

Meanwhile, just plug your headphones into one of the two (Yes, Two! Count them! Two!) headphone jacks.

And all of this can be yours for just $150! Damn, where did I put my blood pressure pills…

Oh, brother… Look, I am going to be brutally honest here. This is just ridiculous. Look, I could literally build this radio out of parts from the junk box in the basement for nothing. Even if I had to buy all of the parts brand new it would cost me less than $30. And for that I’d throw in a speaker and some labels.

But, you say, they must be selling something besides just this, right? Their entire inventory can’t consist of a single radio?

Well, no. Not really. You can get some parts for an old nixie tube clock, a ‘stealth’ VHF antenna that you could build yourself for half the cost, and copies of old HeathKit manuals, and that’s about it. Oh, and little plastic cups for a wind speed indicator.

Now let’s look at the remains of Radio Shack. Yes, it’s still around. While large parts of it were sold off during the bankruptcy, it entered into some kind of partnership with Sprint, and it looks promising.

One of the biggest problems Radio Shack had was it’s entry into the cell phone market. Now the problem when you’re a brick and mortar store that sells cell phones is that people know where you live. In other words, if something goes wrong, they come pounding at your door and demand you fix it. Right now!

This takes up a hell of a lot of time on the part of the sales staff. Which means they can’t take care of people who actually want to buy stuff. Almost every time I’ve been in a Radio Shack store, anywhere, in the past few years, I’ve never been able to actually get someone to take my money.

Seriously. I’d be standing there with whatever little gadget or part I wanted, money in hand, right there at the cash register, and I’d end up giving up in disgust and putting it back and leaving after standing there for ten, twenty, thirty minutes, and all because   the staff were trying to activate phones, or trying to explain why your dropping your phone in a toilet is not their problem or whatever.

Needless to say, this business model was not very successful. It’s hard to make money in retail if your staff is too busy with non-paying customers to even ring up a sale.

But Sprint is now taking over the cell phone part of the business, and will have their own staff in the stores. Radio Shack will, I’ve been told, be Radio Shack once more, selling dopey little gadgets, toys, and even actual real electronics parts and tools.

And it may actually be happening because I ran into this…

IMG 0364

Yes, it’s a kit. A Radio Shack branded kit. In this case a Theremin, but there were a half dozen more on the rack along with this one. And there were parts. And soldering kits. And multimeters. And breadboards. And power supplies. And, of course, the usual selection of goofy, stupid and sometimes fun little gadgets.

I picked it up for $20 because, well, come on… A theremin? Admit it. You’ve always wanted one.

Now, you can imagine which one of these companies I think has a better chance of successfully resurrecting itself.

Old vs. New: The Descent of Publications Into Mediocrity

IMG 0314

I’ve had the good fortune of obtaining, over the years, a few choice issues of old magazines and other publications, and it is irresistible to compare the modern version of those publications with their descendants. Some of these more technically oriented publications like QST and CQ have been around for a long time indeed, with QST going back around 100 years, and CQ having been around for fifty or more.

One thing that becomes glaringly obvious as soon as you open one of these old magazines is just how incredibly bad their descendants have become, at least from a technicians point of view.

Open a QST or CQ magazine from the 1960s, and you’ll find yourself quickly overwhelmed with circuit diagrams, schematics, mathematics, construction articles… If you had a basic knowledge of electronics, could read a schematic and follow instructions, you could build yourself one hell of a nice set of communications equipment just from the articles in the magazines. Not just transmitters and receivers, but linear amplifiers, antenna tuners, a wide variety of essential testing equipment… Just from reading the magazines you could build all of it if you had the ambition to do so.

There were articles about improving commercially made equipment, fixing quirks in existing equipment, modifying it to get better performance. Articles about converting military surplus equipment for ham use.

When’s the last time you saw an article in CQ or QST showing you how to build a complete receiver, a complete transmitter? A full blown linear amplifier? 

The list goes on, and on, and on… Articles explaining everything from basic radio theory for novices to material that would challenge the experts. It was all there…

Now… 

QST is, frankly, hardly worth the effort to open. It seems to be devoted almost entirely to “radio sports” (now there’s one of the most ridiculous uses of the term ‘sport’ I’ve ever heard), DX expeditions begging for money to fund a half million dollar trip to an island so small it only exists at low tide, and the ARRL’s attempt to turn amateur radio into a division of FEMA. About the only thing I read is The Doctor Is In column and the advertising.

CQ is a bit better, but not by much. At least it isn’t under the delusion that ARES is the only thing keeping the country from descending into chaos.

It’s sad to say, but I’ve learned more about electronics and radio from publications dating back to pre-World War II than I ever have from their descendants.