Carrying Things Around

I love bags. I really do. I have different shapes and sizes for a number of applications. I skew toward Kelty for backpacks for camping because they seem to fit me well. I have a Maxpedition sling that I like for grab and go applications. I also have some no-name bags that I take kayaking or when I just need something slightly larger than a pouch but smaller than a sling for something like my phone, first aid kit, flashlight, and knife. I’ve struggled to find a good way to carry my HT in the field. It’s easy enough to clip it on when it’s on, but for transit, I’d like it to have some kind of minimal protection from bouncing against other things or being dropped by a kid.

After looking at what I could do with my IC-705, I stumbled on lens bags for cameras. I picked up a four pack that has four very different sizes. One of them was small enough for me to stuff my Zumspot in for transfer to the field for JOTA. It felt good to have just a bit of insurance there. I have another, larger lens bag that does hold the IC-705. That keeps the screen safe at least and allows me to toss it into the backpack with the Super Antenna without sweating too much. As a bonus, one of them was the perfect size to hold my TH-D74 with it’s hand mic.

TH-D74 and hand mic outside of the lens case.
TH-D74 and hand mic wrapped up.

These bags aren’t perfect. They aren’t going to act like a hard case. They aren’t waterproof. They aren’t crushproof – or even crush-resistant. But again, they keep things from scratching or taking too much abuse as they bump together in the pack. So for a controlled event like JOTA where all I needed to do was get from home to camp to the site for the station, it was great. If I had to really pack the Jeep with other people’s stuff or dogs I don’t think I’d be as happy with the solution.

I’m still really looking at how to take my IC-705 into the field. I’ve seen camera systems that would be great, but I feel like that’s taking things over the top. I do have a soft spot for packs that let me hang things off of them and have many compartments, so who can tell? I’ll come back to this as I kick up my field operations.

Radio UI/UX Thoughts

I’m taking a lot of notes on the IC-705 as I get acquainted with it. I did this when I got my TH-D74 and it served me well. I keep a little notebook around or throw bits and pieces into my notetaking software with tags so that I can find it later. What is emerging for me is an interesting pattern: I write down the menu paths to the functions that I use most.

Let me say that again: I write down the menu paths to the functions that I use most.

Why do I do that? Well, we can say that I don’t remember things very well or that I’m somehow coming up short in really learning the interface. But that’s not entirely true, is it? The truth is that ham radio interfaces are hostile toward their end user. This isn’t a surprise to anyone, I’m sure, but for a device that at one time had a brutally simple, physical interface (knobs, switches, wires, etc.) it has taken a turn toward obscure and opaque methods of applying even the simplest of settings.

Examples? There are a bundle of them. I have to remember that I can only be on the A band selector on my TH-D74 if I want to use D-STAR. Where is that indicated? In the manual. Sort of. Where is the Squelch setting on my IC-705? Press the knob, then touch the screen, then adjust via the knob, then dismiss with the knob. What about the output power setting? Function hard button to 2 soft button to MAX TX PWR setting and back out via function hard button.

I can’t even talk about my “disposable” Baofeng HT or my DMR HT or my mobile rig in the Jeep.

We will also set aside for another day the fact that all of the rig programming software that I’ve used (those provided by manufacturers as well as free or paid solutions) reek of the sample code one would find in a “Learn Visual C++ in 24 Hours” book back in 1998 and do very little to improve the experience of programming a radio. Hooking up a grid to a CSV file is not a user interface. More on that in another post…

In writing this up I was thinking about my IC-7100 and why I don’t have as much trouble going from HF SSB Phone to DV to HF Digital to VHF/UHF. The simple truth is that my brain adjusted to the dysfunction of that interface far better than it did to any other. And that’s the sad truth of it: I like ICOM’s UI/UX best because they are broken in a way that I can cope with more easily.

I don’t like to use smartphones or mobile operating systems as a model for how a user should interface with a device, but they are proof that one can make it easy enough for a wide variety of people with differing skill levels to execute fairly complex tasks repeatedly and with little friction. So maybe it’s not all bad and I’m sure there’s something to learn there.

Let’s think about a radio like the IC-705. It has hard buttons, a touch screen, and several knobs that can also be pressed. With so many elements available, why does it take so long to get to the functions that I’m using the most? Perhaps we could steal something from smartphones and allow people to set the top level of soft buttons on the touch screen. That would mean that if I’m in the field and need to drill into something quickly, I could simply assign it to the top level and have it right there. Everyone is going to use this radio a little diffently, so why not give the UI the ability to be personalized?

This feels more critical for mobile radios than for desktops if only because an HT has limited physical real estate and overloading buttons and combining them with modifiers quickly loses a user. Doubly so as they will likely be using it while walking or standing somewhere and maybe even trying to use it one-handed. A rig like the IC-705 suffers for the same reason, though I doubt anyone is trying to fiddle with it while walking.

If I had comments turned on and anyone actually read this blog, I might get some noise about how I sound like an appliance operator and I should roll up my sleeves and use my head and a bunch of other non-productive rhetoric. I will say that I expect that with my uBitx or my Phaser kits. Or even my homebrew experiments. But when I slap down the plastic and take home a box and open it, I don’t think that it’s too much to ask to have a little more polish in the product than what I get when I solder something together myself.

I want to be clear: So far, I love my IC-705. It’s checking off all of the boxes that I hoped it would. And my TH-D74 is always at hand (ha!). But this is 2020. There is a wealth of information and plenty of solid practice around UI/UX. It is a real shame that it’s not leveraged in complex devices like these when it would truly remove some friction from operating them and improve the amount of fun one can have.

Be Prepared

IC-705 with homebrew battery box

“Be Prepared” is the Scout Motto. It’s not the slogan. The slogan is, “Do A Good Turn Daily.” The difference is important. Both are important, but it’s hard to do a good turn if you aren’t prepared.

I’ve done the Jamboree On The Air with my kids for the last 2 years. We never really planned anything with a larger group because of my rig and the hassle factor of my shack at the old QTH. But with the addition of my new toy to my collection and my wife taking over my daughter’s Webelos Den and a very old friend of mine being the Cub Master, it seems that my time to shine has come. I’m going to toss the IC-705 and my homebrew battery box into the Jeep and get some kids on the air.

In talking with my buddy, the problems that they have had in the past included JOTA coinciding with a contest or simply being unable to get hold of anyone. There could be nothing worse than teaching a kid about radio and then not having anyone to talk to, so that risk needs to be pulled from the equasion.

Last night, I jumped on the air from my kitchen. Why the kitchen? So I’d know that I had everything I needed and didn’t have something propping me up that wouldn’t be in the field. In the even that I can’t get anyone on HF or for some reason can’t hit a repeater, I will have my Zumspot with me tethered to my iPhone. What does that do? It opens up the world of D-STAR.

We had a lot of fun with JOTA and D-STAR last year. My daughter talked to Scouts in New Mexico, Columbia, and Costa Rica. We’ve talked to Scouts all over the states and in Canada as well. The best part is that REF033A is dedicated to JOTA. So you can make a contact and slide over to another reflector to talk. It’s clear signal and you’re almost guaranteed a contact.

The test from the kitchen to my dad worked well. We’ll have him out at the PCARS club site on the day of the Jamboree to man the HF station (maybe we’ll get him on 40m!) or the repeater. And if that fails, off to D-STAR we go.

And we will be cautious. Masks for all Scouts per the guidelines. Gloves to operate the mic and a good alcohol swabbing between users just to be extra sure. Being outdoors is the key! Gotta keep that air flowing. Hopefully, we’ll have some fun, learn a few things, and make some new friends on the air.

IC-705 – Part 2: FT8

The adventures with the IC-705 continue!

This week, I installed the most recent release candidate for FT8. It contains a listing for the IC-705 so it doesn’t have to be spoofed. The application ran fine for me on my Windows 10 laptop. The radio did exactly what it should do and I got my first contact on 40m while set to 5 watts and running through my attic dipole antenna.

First FT8 contact with the IC-705. Thanks K9JLX!

No complications. No fiddling. It just worked. And yes, that is a pleasant surprise!

I also got the latest release candidate for FT8 running on my little (newly) Linux WinBook. There was a bit more fiddling to figure out what the IC-705 comes up as in the audio settings. Remember, kids: arecord -l will list all recording interfaces and you can fake it from there. Kind of. In any case, I didn’t make any contacts, but I heard stations and I was heard over on which means I’m getting out! I’m hoping that this combination makes an excellent field setup for FT8. I plan to test that assertion this weekend.

I’m not quite a week in, so I’m trying to save my impressions until I’ve gotten through enough of my use cases for the rig. I will say that it’s a challenge having this unit before many have had any experience with it and posted about it. The manual lacks actual sample configurations for some things and that makes it difficult to validate issues that I’m experiencing (especially with fancy things like D-Star). There’s a great mailing list over on for the IC-705, but again, the posts only go back so far and there’s not a lot of practical operating advice just yet.

To recap, I now have the following use cases checked off:

  • Connect to D-Star HotSpot
  • Complete a contact via RF repeater
  • FT8 contact on HF

So what’s next?

  • Get out in the field with the Super Antenna MP1C and try to make a contact
  • Prepare for JOTA so that the Scouts can get on the air via UHF/VHF repeater, HF, or D-Star

That’s a lot of “experimenting” (read: playing) to do.

Computers: An Aside

Working closely with technology for an extended period of time has colored my views on computing. I’ve gone from full-on, build it all myself or die to using whatever works reliably and jettisoning anything that fails. I can trace the completion of that transition to the point where I had a little baby boy to care for and no more time in my day for compiling things or tweaking hardware.

That was 13 or so years ago. Since that time, I’ve kept myself mostly in the default use cases covered by MacOS and iOS. Why? Because it works for me 99.999% of the time. I don’t ever find myself having issues that other people hit. Part of this, I believe, is because I understand the use cases. The applications I use are good for what they do and I expect little else from them. That is to say, I have an application for my notetaking and journaling. I have one for music making and editing audio. I have one for browsing. I have one for mail…OK…that’s a lie. I go through mail clients like most people go through shows on Netflix. I hate all email clients for different reasons. They all suck. All of them. Even the one you love. It’s horrible and I can tell you why. At length. You will regret asking.

Anyway, I try to stick to applications that do what I need done and use them for their strengths. I do take the time to give them the respect of learning their primary use cases so that my expectations are in the right place. You won’t catch me keeping an address book in a spreasheet program, for instance. That said, if an addressbook app loses one piece of my data? It’s gone. And I won’t look back. To my mind, the app’s failure is complete and that I do not forgive.

When I started messing around with Ham Radio software, I learned quickly that the vast majority of it was built for Windows. I’ve made a lot of money in my lifetime developing software in Microsoft’s ecosystem, so it’s a stretch for me to complain too loudly. I will simply say that I don’t do Windows at home because of the poor driver support and the endless interventions required on my part to keep things running. This is no less true in the radio sphere as there is always a driver to install for any given cable or device. It’s a disappointment in 2020 that manufacturers can’t read a spec and provide a device that meets it without imposing on the user to add software to their systems. But I digress.

About 2 years ago, I purchased a WinBook TW110 at Microcenter. It has an Atom processor, a touch screen, and is a weird little multi-form-factor device. It also runs Windows 10 and weighs almost nothing with a pretty impressive battery life. I set it up with WSJT-X and some logging software and off I went. I used it primarily to program my radios as there is no Mac software for that outside of CHIRP and not every rig I have likes CHIRP. But then we hit that moment that I hit with every Windows tablet: I ran out of space to update Windows.

This hits me like clockwork. I’ve had some really cool tablets that did really well for my limited use cases that eventually hit this wall. My HP tablet for instance, had a single USB port that was also used to charge the unit. I needed to use a USB stick to hold the updates. The update took longer than the battery could survive. I tried a USB hub to no avail. Finally, it ended up in the parts drawer waiting for me to use the screen for something at a later date.

The real disappointment with the WinBook was that it is really, really lightweight and it charges off of a USB port with 5 volts in a pinch. It’s ideal for FT8 in the field. Having it fail like this made me sad. So my little WinBook was destined for a life as maybe a clock that showed timezones and the position of the sun or sattelites or something. But in the back of my head a voice said, “Just throw Linux on it. If it fails, the worst case is you reload Windows 10 and maybe have enough space.” So I grabbed a Mint image and it worked first shot.

Side note: I used Debian for YEARS. It was my OS of choice for everything and I was intimately familiar with every part of the system. I wrote device drivers for sound cards and had a lot of fun playing with it and learning how it worked. Note that all of that is past tense.

Naturally, the touchpad isn’t supported, but a Bluetooth mouse and a functional touchscreen mitigate that. The battery life is really good. And behold! The entire OS doesn’t really make a dent in the 32 GB of internal storage that this little beast has available. This might work!

Naturally, the current stable version of FT8 doesn’t have the IC-705 in it yet and thus requires spoofing as an IC-7300. The 705 is in the first release candidate for the next version. Which I’ll have to compile from source on this distro. Which will require some time to get dependencies in a row. Which…takes me back…to why I don’t do this anymore.

That said, maybe it’s time. My kids are fully functional and mostly self-sustaining on the weekends and after bedtime. Maybe I do have time a little time to wrestle with this and see if I remember anything from those long nights of compiling entire distributions from source so I could run a new soundcard. It could be that I might even have fun doing it. If I do get this WinBook working for FT8, I know that my back will thank me and my field operations will be easier and last longer.

This feeds my thesis that Ham Radio is the Old Magick and it will take its adherents back to the beginning of all things, in time.

IC-705 – Part 1: D-Star

It’s been over a year since my last post. There are reasons for that, not limited to a move to another state and a global pandemic. It certainly isn’t because I’m not active in the radio hobby! In fact, moving has made me more available to the club that I belong to and their activities on the air. And being locked down has made for more time experimenting with the radio. But that hasn’t left a lot of time for blogging about radio.

Until now!

At this point, I’m pretty sure everyone in the ham radio community heard something or other about the release of ICOM’s QRP rig the IC-705. It’s full of features and has an amazing footprint for all that it does. I remember reading the data sheet and thinking, “This is the rig I want for getting out in the field.” My 7100 is great, but I have to carry a battery box that weighs quite a bit or stick close to my Jeep. The sheer weight of the rig plus the battery just doesn’t make for a nice hike. But the 705 looked like it was going to be what I wanted it to be.

I pre-ordered one way back through DX Engineering. And then, well, the world ended. There were delays. Then more delays. Finally, we heard that November would be the earliest possible ship date. So imagine my surprise when there was a box from DXE on my porch on 02-Oct! I did the Happy Nerd Dance and opened it up so I could start charging it.

I’m familiar enough with ICOM’s approach to radio operating systems that I could get myself up and on the local repeater in no time, even with my cruddy mag-mount antenna that I keep around for emergencies. Programming it is about as easy as once could expect. That said, radio manufacturers could take a few lessons from modern UI/UX designers when they name things and decide what will go where. I’ll pick those nits later.

I have a Zumspot that I use for D-STAR and DMR. I wanted to get my 705 to hit it so that I can do a demo for Jamboree On The Air in a couple of weeks. I like to keep D-STAR up and ready as HF is unpredictable, sometimes no one is on a repeater, and no kid wants to hear about radio for 15 minutes and then not talk to anyone. D-STAR solves that nicely as there are Scouts on a couple of reflectors and it’s relatively foolproof.

It took a bit of fiddling. The manual, which covers details nicely, is still not great at walking someone from point A to point B in a straight line with some typical configurations. The fact that they don’t really address Hotspots directly is a gap. We all know that they are technically repeaters, but there are some fiddly bits there that make it less than clear. I would cover it all here, but I have a feeling it’s very specific to how the individual Hotspot is set up. More on that as I gain more experience.

I spent about an hour getting it working on D-STAR. That hour was spread over 2 days. That’s more a sign of where my life is than a ding on the rig. If I’d had more time to sit and fiddle with it, it probably would have gone more smoothly.

So far, so good. Next up will be FT8 and field tests. It’s going to be an exciting few weekends as I have some time in the field coming to me.