Saturday, December 27, 2008

Exploring the VHF Radio World

Since heavy ice broke my HF antenna pole last year I have been without any HF communications, being too lazy to repair the pole or replace it. I never used the VHF bands before, so I thought now is a good time to experiment with those bands especially that it is easy to install a small indoor antenna to cover the two bands: 2 m (144 MHz) and 70 cm (430 MHz). The antenna cost about $30 and can be installed on the top of a car using a magnet base. For now I intend to use it indoor only. The gain and VSWR of the antenna are probably not that good but I am hoping that I can communicate using one of the nearby repeaters in the city, and for that I don't need a lot of power or antenna gain.
The main advantage of using VHF bands is the ability to experiment with digital communications, such as RTTY, slow scan TV and ARPS systems. Some amateurs also use VHF bands for moon and meteor scatter, but that is not one of my immediate interests now.
In order to utilize any of the digital modes a TNC (Terminal Node Controller) is needed, or at least that used to be the case. Now a sound card of a common personal computer can be used instead of the TNC to connect with the radio, together with some special software installed in the PC, and the PC itself can then be used to operate the radio in digital mode. Well, I got a collection of digital mode communications software recently and it is time now to use them in the VHF bands.
Before the internet and email, radio amateurs used the digital modes to send text messages just like email. Now of course email is much more efficient, except of course when there is no access to the internet.
In any case, pretty soon I should be able to use the VHF bands and report on my findings. Wish me luck.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Winter Workout

The winter here in Iowa is cold and snowy, with winds that can exceed 30 mph at times making the temperature feels like below zero F. In a weather like this one cannot go out to do anything, let alone exercise. But how can one stay in shape in a winter like this? I don't know about you but with the kind of stress I have at work I need to exercise regularly or else I can't keep up with life's pressing demands. So I do weight training in the basement. I found out that it is the best kind of workout I can do to stay in shape. Not only it helps the muscles and ligaments stay strong and flexible but it also provides aerobic benefits as a bonus. I do run on the treadmill once in a while, but I found out that the weight training alone is sufficient. There are a few things to bear in mind while weight training to get good benefit and see positive results: First you must warm up a few minutes before you start the exercise. Second you must use enough weights to push your muscles to the point of near exhaustion. This means that you won't be able to make many repetitions. A set of three-eight or even six repetitions each is enough. You must increase the weighs when you feel that your muscles can do more. Usually 10% increase each time is adequate.
Third, you must rest one day after each workout to let the muscles recover. This is important because the soreness your muscles feel are the result of micro-tear in them, and it is important to have enough nutrition and rest to let the muscles repair themselves and grow.
Speaking of nutrition, you will need to eat healthy to help the muscles grow. This means you need balanced meals that contain enough protein, carbohydrates and fiber. Whey protein helps the muscles recover quickly and grow stronger, so I use it after each workout. At night, a glass of milk before you sleep is a good way of providing protein for the body to repair the muscles without causing digestion problems during sleep.
Usually you can see results within a month. The important thing is to stay consistent and continue to work out regularly, three times a week. Start with half an hour each time, and slowly increase the time and weights as best suits you.
I have seen impressive results (relatively speaking), and that encouraged me to continue, so I hope I won't stop ever.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Receive HD Channels without HDTV

I have decided some time ago that I was not ready for a new HDTV yet. The JVC 37" analog TV we have works great and there was no reason to replace it now. So I bought an Insignia coverter box. It costs about $60, and with the government coupon of $40 I ended paying a net of $20. They sell other cheaper boxes but I was told this one provides a better picture, and as you will see below I was pleased with its picture quality.
Initially I thought I didn't need to hook up my new converter box before the transmission went digital next February, but then I found out that there were already some high definition channels out in the air begging for reception. This evening I connected the converter box to my TV and I was in for a pleasant surprise. The converter box found four channels that it received with the indoor antenna and the quality of the picture was excellent. If I wanted to switch back to the regular analog TV channels, all I had to do was to turn the converter box off. It was as simple as that.
Of course the digital TV would have better clarity because of its high definition capability, but I am quite pleased with the quality of the picture that I receive via the converter box. I am confident that within the next several months the price of high definition TVs is going to drop considerably and the quality will continue to improve as new technologies emerge, so in the meantime the converter box is an excellent interim solution. Wouldn't you agree?

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Riding Green

We have abused our environment for so long. Since the Industrial revolution the human race has been generating tons and tons of toxics in the air due to the proliferation of the internal combustion machine alone. It is time we start to think of using alternatives to the fossil fuel. I see electric cars as the green future for transportation. Until the batteries are efficient enough there will be hybrid cars in the interim. I think my next car is going to be a hybrid.
When I was in college I liked to use my bike all the time. I did not ride my car except when I had to go shopping or travel. The nice bike roads within the campus made it easy for students to use bikes for transportation, and the exercise was great. I wish we had dedicated bike roads everywhere because they encourage people to use their bikes to work and school. Not only would we be solving the pollution problem, but we would also be solving the obesity problem which plagues many of our people at this age.
The problem with using a bike to work is sweating of course. That is why people prefer riding a car or motorcycle to work instead of a bike. Taking a shower at work is an option but you will also have to take with you clothes to change. There is also the weather consideration, for sometimes it will rain or snow. So granted you can't use a bike to go places all the time, but you should be able to use it at least some of the time, and that alone is guaranteed to improve the air quality considerably.
The solution to the pollution problem is in our hands. It takes simple measures to improve our air quality without much hassle, like riding bikes instead of cars, and it is good for our health too, so why don't we do it?

Friday, July 25, 2008

Inversion Therapy

If you ever suffered from lower back pain as I did then you should be familiar with the inconvenience that back problems cause. Fifteen years ago I tried to lift a very heavy slab of cement and a few days later I experienced severe lower back pain that lasted for over a month. I went to the doctor, took x-rays, and found out that the disk between the last two vertebrae was compressed, but nothing unusual. There was no herniated disk or anything like that, and the pain did not shoot down my leg as sciatica patients suffer from. As a cure, I had to lay on my back for extended periods of time, or walk around. Standing or sitting were bad. The pain eventually disappeared, but not completely. I continue to have recurrences of pain now and then which usually come unannounced and without any apparant reason I could notice.
I made my first visit to a chiropractor a few months later and took another set of x-rays. I started physical therapy sessions, three times a week. The chiropractor used a special table that had a shape of an inverted V with a hinge in the middle. I would lie my stomach on the table and he would tie my ankles at one end and my wrists at the other end, then he would start a machine that caused the table to open and close, thereby stretching my spine each time it closed. He pressed the lower vertebrae with his fingers while the table was opening and closing, and man that felt so good. I could feel instant relief in my lower back each time I used that table.
Of course the chiropractor expected me to continue with these sessions indefinitely, just like the regular dental checkups, but for me the cost of those sessions was prohibitive.
With time I got used to living with sporadic backache that would appear suddenly every now and then without a notice, but I kept looking for the ultimate cure. During my quest, I discovered Aspecreme which relieved the pain as it acted as localized aspirin. I also discovered that stretching helped a lot, especially touching my toes with my palms while keeping my knees straight. I learned a few other exercises that helped some. But recently I found the ultimate solution that is better than anything else I knew before: The inversion table! This table allows you to hang from your ankles upside down, relieving the pain off your back instantly, while stretching your compressed vertebrae effectively and without the need of a chiropractor - see the picture. I bought a high quality table that can lock at different angles instead of just the upside position, and it works great. I immediately felt the relief in my back. Kudos to the inventor of this table. I wonder how the chiropractors never told me about this machine. I heard chiropractors and health physicians don't really believe that the inversion therapy is effective at all, which is quite surprising to me, because I tried it myself and I know it is effective, but come to think of it, if all their patients used that machine then they would have no business at all. Now that incentive enough for them to reject it.
Well I tried it and I liked it, and I know I will continue to use it. It is easy to use, convenient and does not cost anything except for the initial investment of its price. I had to start with low inclination angles and gradually increase the angle because the first time I tried it I went quickly all the way upside down and I felt dizzy afterwards. Beware that with the upside position the pressure inside your head rises very quickly to high levels. You have to train your head to take it step by step, until eventually you get used to gravity reversal. Other than that, I think this inversion table is the best cure for backaches, and should be considered first before any other measures are taken. I know it works because I used it. So go ahead and try it and let me know what you think.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Biking Along Cedar Nature Trail

The Cedar Nature Trail is about a 55 miles long crushed-stone road that used to be a railway between Cedar Rapids and Waterloo up in north Eastern Iowa. I biked along that trail before to the end of its south side in Cedar Rapids, which is about 12 miles of hard asphalt each way (see the picture) from where I live. I also biked along the other side of the trail before (that is mostly crushed-stone), but never exceeded about 10 miles each way. Today I decided to bike towards Waterloo and reach Center Point which is about 15 miles from Cedar Rapids. I had an oatmeal breakfast sprinkled with some whey protein and mixed with molasses, then I took with me some water and I started at 9 am. The weather was hot and humid so I am glad I took water with me. I kept paddling, while listening to my iPod, and I made it all the way to Center Point, which happened to be at the 13th mile point, and I went on, to the 15th mile point, which happened to be at Urbana. At that point I decided to go back.
On the way back I stopped at Center Point where there was a museum. The museum was not open yet (it opens from 1 to 4 pm on Sunday), but it had restrooms and a water fountain which I didn't need neither. I drank some of the water I brought with me and stretched a little before I mounted my bike again and started heading back. When I reached the 10 mile point I started to feel tired and dehydrated. I realized that water alone was not going to be enough and that I needed to replenish the lost minerals from my body somehow. Unfortunately I did not bring with me any food nor Getorade, so I started looking for berry trees that I remembered seeing along the way. I found a black berry tree at the 8th mile point, so I immediately dismounted my bike and started picking the ripe delicious berries. There weren't many ripe berries on the tree so I ate also some unripe ones, a total of about 20 or so berries. I felt their reviving effect immediately on my body, and I was ready to continue paddling back home.
I stopped again at the 3rd mile point to drink the rest of the water I carried and then continued. The last 400 yards or so to my home were the most difficult because they were uphill, but I made it fine albeit I became quite tired. The whole trip took me about 4 and half hours, arriving at about 1:30 pm.
When I arrived home I drank some orange juice and then took a shower. After that I had lunch and felt much better. I slept for a couple of hours after lunch, then had to drink black coffee to get up and write these words.
I think one of these days I am going to try biking all the way to Waterloo. Granted that kind of trip will need proper supply of food and drink, and a companion or two, but I believe I can do it if I spend the night in Waterloo to come back the next day. It is good to challenge one's self every now and then to break normal routine ... what do you think?

Monday, July 14, 2008

No Urgency for HDTV

It is true that analog TV is going to go away in February 2009 as all broadcasting will be digital by then, at least in the United States. But does this mean everybody should toss away their analog TV sets and buy new High Definition TV's (HDTV)? Not at all! You will still be able to receive the digital transmission using a converter that you could get from Best Buy or Walmart for about $50 to $60, and with the government giving away coupons for $40 towards that purchase, you could get that converter for as little as $10. So you can still get mileage out of your analog TV investment at least until the unit dies beyond repair. I can see myself continue to use my good old 36" JVC TV for years to come. It has a crisp and nice colored picture which, granted, not as nice as the high definition LCD or plasma new sets, but considering that a new such set would cost north of $1000, I think it is worthwhile keeping the old set. Besides, I enjoy videotaping programs from satellite using my good old VCR set. I also have a DVD player which works well with my old TV set, on which I can watch DVD's as well as my personal camera family videos. I was told that the old VCR would work fine with the HDTV, and the new Blu Ray DVD player could upconvert regular DVD's for display on the HDTV set. However, we have already seen the high def DVD lose the war to Blu Ray, and it might take some time for these standards to become fixed, so I don't see this HDTV technology as an exigency at this time nor do I see any value added beyond the higher quality picture itself. Maybe it is nostalgia, or resistance to change, but I am really reluctant to change a system that has served me well for many years to a new system that neither solves a known problem nor adds any extra value, save for better picture quality. It is just aesthetics at this point, which for some people might be worth the new investment, but for hardcore engineers like myself, it is not a good enough reason to switch immediately. The bottom line is there is no urgency in switching to HDTV. I would take my time and waiteth, for all good things happen to those who waiteth, like prices dropping down, standards stabilizing, and new technologies emerging. What do you thnk?

Friday, July 11, 2008

Finding the T-5 Bird

I spent quite some time in the past couple of weeks trying to point my dish antenna to the Ku-band T-5 satellite, a task that should have been relatively easy but unfortunately turned out to be a little more involved than I anticipated. I used to blithely receive all the FTA (Free-to-Air) channels on that satellite before, but then strong wind moved the dish beyond the point of return and I lost the satellite for a year or so; I could not manually point it back to receive any signal no matter how hard I tried.
Recently I decided to get those channels back, so the first thing I did was to cement the pole in the ground to prevent strong Iowa gales from moving it again, which was the easy part. My weekend before last was lost trying to get a signal from the LNB to the receiver by pointing the dish to the coordinates of the T-5 satellite (that I got from the internet). To my dismay, and relief at the same time, I realized after all this effort that the LNB seal was broken and rain water actually filled the inside of the box making it a useless peace of junk (which explained why I was picking an erratic signal wherever I pointed the dish)! So I ordered a new LNB from eBay for about $12 including shipping and handling. When the LNB arrived, I thought that I would find the T-5 signal in a jeffy, but I was wrong again. Although I could get the signal level indicator bar to above 75%, the signal quality bar read 0 (nil, zilch, nothing). Finally I found out that the new LNB setting in the receiver menu had to be set to Universal 1 (not Standard, and not Universal 2), and only then I was able to get a signal quality of 50% or so. I tweaked the elevation to maximize the signal quality and also skewed the LNB to about 6 degrees clockwise and I ended up with a signal quality of about 60%. With that kind of signal quality I was able to receive all the FTA channels again.
Now as we enjoy watching all those international free channels in crystal clear quality I think to myself: this was all worth my effort. What do you think?

Monday, June 23, 2008

Everyone has a Cell Phone

I have to admit that cell phones are becoming more ubiquitous than any other thing ever invented in human history. More than the car, the laptop, and the PDA. Let's face it, the PDA now is embedded inside the phone. Very few people, like myself, still use standalone PDA's. I don't have a cell phone, because I thought I did not need one. But I need a PDA to organize my contacts, databases, programs etc. However, I am starting to think this is outdated ... the Emperor isn't wearing clothes for Heaven's sake! Why not just go and get a cell phone that has computer power like the iPhone, the Palm Centro or even a Kyocera. Any one of these new phones has enough brains in it to do the PDA fnuctions and more. Besides, who said I don't need a cell phone. Well I do. How many times I needed to make a quick phone call to find out where my wife or children were inside the mall, and could not find a pay phone. It seems that pay phones have become antiquated already.
I know what I am going to do, I will get me a cell phone, and pretty soon I will buy also a HDTV since all TV transmission is going to be digital starting February 2009 anyway. I am sad to say that I will have to abandon my current PDA pretty soon, although it and its predecessors served me so well for over five years. Rate of technology change these days is about two years average. So you have to change gadgets that fast if you want to stay current. I don't know about you, but this is too fast for me. I like to stick to my gadgets longer than that, at least five years or so. How about you?

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Global Positioning and Tracking

It is amazing how the GPS receiver changed the way we use maps. Since I got my Garmin nuvi 660 GPS receiver I stopped generating paper maps whenever I travel to a new place. I just take my nuvi with me and it does the job showing me how to find the address I need, as well as nearby gas stations, restaurants, shops, airports, and anything I need. In addition, it shows me the direction I am moving in, my speed and a moving map that tracks my position at all times within 2 meters accuracy. Just amazing!
Recently I found a free Palm PDA application called cotoGPS that allows a Bluetooth enabled PDA to interface with any Bluetooth enabled GPS receiver to get the NMEA (National Marine Electronic Association) data from it and process them to provide additional information such as satellite positions, area, tracking paths, speed and direction and a whole new set of other information that is displayed nicely on the PDA small screen.
Come to think of it, with the 24 medium range satellites circumventing the earth and providing the position information to GPS receivers on earth, there must be infinite possibilities for what you can do with that kind of information. Google Earth is one of these applications. Not only can you find any place on earth with Google Earth, but now you can also track paths on real images taken from satellites simply by using a GPS receiver that interfaces with Google Earth.
I am thinking what's next? The earth has become such a small village now with the advent of the Internet and GPS. Is the earth going to continue to shrink in size indefinitely? There must be a stopping mechanism that will limit this trend, don't you think?