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July 2005

The on-line magazine of the Burnham Beeches Radio Club.

Welcome to the July 2005 edition of Beechlog.

Here we are again, doesn't the time fly as you get older? What with the Ofcom 'consultation', who knows where amateur radio is going. Is there a big RSGB conspiracy? Is Ofcom about to abolish amateur radio as we know it? Only time will tell.

Whether I will be involved is another matter. Having found a buyer for my house, there now is the long wait for things to actually happen. I don't know where I will end up living, but it will be somewhere in Slough, at least initially. It seems unlikely that there will be anywhere to mount aerials, but you never know. I renewed my licence last week so I haven't given up yet.

Roger GØHZK, Editor


Mobile Email 2
Where is our licence going?
Small Things
Photo Gallery

Mobile email 2

Many issues ago I wrote about my experiences with my Blackberry email client. After about 18 months of use the time to reassess arrived. So I bought an XDAIIs. Is it better/worse, or what?

The Blackberry is an extremely well designed device. It may look a bit odd, but the screen and keyboard fit its purpose very well indeed. The software is so good, it almost reads your mind. The battery life is terrific, almost two weeks between charges. And it just works. On a new device, you just feed in a username of your choice, a password, and that’s it. To get it to pick up from your POP3/IMAP boxes you just tell it the email address and password, and in most cases, that’s it! If it can’t find your mailbox, it will ask for the address.

In the 18 months I used it, there was only one glitch - it stopped collecting my Cix mail a few months ago. All the settings seemed OK, so I deleted them, and re-entered the same details and all was well again. There were a few shortcomings, mainly the problem with reading some HTML/MIME emails. You would either got loads of gibberish or tags all over the screen.

Email So how does the XDA manage? Actually better than I expected. The unreadable emails are now displayed properly, although I still get the odd one that’s messed up, usually from a commercial mailing list, and machine generated. The XDA doesn’t do mail push, you have to fetch your mail. The latter can be automated, mine is collected every 59 minutes. Like the Blackberry, it will collect only the first 2k of each message, and you can collect the rest manually if required, which is not normally the case. You can fetch mail manually at any time.

The mail application is rather like a limited version of a PC client, and can handle multiple mailboxes. The only snag I have found is its tendency to wait a while before logging out of a mailbox. Sometimes when fetching mail with my PC, it complains the box is already in use, so I have to disconnect manually on the XDA.

The XDA does a host of other things too. The MSN Messenger client is especially excellent. The first time I tried it out I immediately had multiple conversation from various friends, which it handled very well. Setup is simplicity, just you MSN address (I use my usual Cix address) and password and it picks up your settings from the MSN server.

The PIM application, Pocket Outlook, is OK, better than Blackberry’s, but there are numerous alternatives. I’m using Pocket Informant. Windows Media Player works very well. With some difficulty I have illegally ripped some DVD films and reduced them in size using Windows XP’s built in Movie application. They play very well indeed on the XDA. A 90 minute film takes up about 250 megs, so a decent SD/MMC card is required here! Music also plays well, as does almost everything I’ve thrown at it.

Locator Calculator The Office apps are so-so. Pocket IE works quite well, and fully implements Javascript so I have adapted my locator programs for the small screen. There are thousands of other apps out there too.

What about the drawbacks? The battery life is quite poor, about four days I guess. A charge each day is a good idea! The screen is poor in direct sunlight, although excellent indoors. I did worry about the GPRS data usage, but an excellent app is supplied to monitor this. I get 36MB a month with the contract, but about 30-40 emails a day uses just a fraction of this.

In conclusion, the jury is out. The XDA means I don’t have to carry about a separate PDA, but it’s bigger and battery life is poor. I still think the Blackberry is the bees knees, if only they’d fix the html/mime mail problem (maybe more recent versions are better?). I still have my Palm T2, and neither of these machines supersede my Psion 5mx. So will I change again next year? It still seems that the perfection that I seek is still far away, so who knows.

Where's our licence going?

As I write, the Ofcom licensing ‘consultation’ period is underway, and it’s still not clear what Ofcoms real intentions are. There are two scenarios that have appeal to different groups of people, either renewal every few years, or the licence for life. Most arguments revolve around what Ofcom might do. This is clouded by another choice they offer, complete deregulation.

Ofcom tell us fairly clearly that the latter option is only there for completeness, and that they have no intention of allowing a free for all on our bands. But a lot of people see this option as representing the real aim of deregulation. While it might not be possible in the short term, in five or ten years the UK government might see a way of withdrawing from UN and EC requirements for regulating the airwaves.

I don’t know whether this is a real possibility or not. Government agencies speak with forked tongues, and the current situation seems akin to the motorway planning procedures of a few decades ago. I remember being given four possible routes for the M25 in a consultation document, two either side of my village. In this way the authorities neatly divided opinion, as they have done since colonial days, and then implemented the plan they had in mind all along.

Current argument suggests that a five year licensing option would generate enough money to pay Ofcoms expenses in regulating and issuing licences. By contrast, a licence-for-life scheme would have the same administration costs but no income. So does this matter? If Ofcom have enough income to break even, will this make them more responsive to our wishes? If licensing was run at a loss, would they do something nasty? Who can tell?

A lot of people say that government agencies do what they wish, and can show endless consultations as whitewash (Terminal Four, Terminal Five, for example). So we might as well go for the cheapest option as amateur radio may be doomed anyway.

It’s difficult to foresee a sensible reason for the abolition (or complete deregulation) of amateur radio. True, the bands could be offered to someone else. But what use would a completely unreliable radio service be? While very short range services might work, would they be swamped by interference every eleven years? Ten metres would be the best bet for short range services, as 27megs has been used for such things for decades. But what use would the lower bands be? Digital Radio Mondial? Any such services may well interfere with amateur radio overseas, unless all other countries decided to harmonise with Ofcom, which seems highly unlikely. A couple of years ago we worried that ADSL and especially PLT would make the amateur bands useless. ADSL is commonplace in many shacks, so presumably is nothing much to worry about. PLT on a large scale seems to be uneconomic, and thus unlikely to happen, except perhaps as hotel systems in an IP-over-mains installation.

So which option should we go for? The periodic renewal options minimises financial impact on Ofcom, but is opposed by many in case it turns out that the RSGB gets to administer it on behalf of Ofcom! Some amateurs get very heated over this. They see the RSGB as a greedy book publisher, eager to get its mitts on licence income, even though the RSGB Morse testing scheme ran for over 15 years at lower cost and greater accessibility, with little criticism by hard-line Morse people. Would a licence-for-life really last for life, or just until amateur radio is effectively killed off?

I don’t know the answer to these questions. It all boils down to whether Ofcom is telling us the truth about its long term intentions. On the latter, only time will tell.

Small things

For some time, since I messed up my computer two or three years ago, I’ve been making a concerted effort to keep reasonably up-to-date backups of the data that I don’t want to lose. Not that it’s really of any value, as one day it will all get slung out by my descendants when I become doolally or dead. The current system works like this: folders of wanted data are automatically copied to the PC’s second hard disk every day. Then every month or so I burn it onto about three DVDs and store them in my locker at work. I’ve now got quite a lot of CD and DVD backups!

This system is probably OK for the time being, although I haven’t had to use the backups yet. My longer term plan was to move the second hard disk into another PC on my network, so that I would always have a copy of the data that’s no greater than a day old. I had intended to build this new PC using a Via EPIA board - the slowest fanless version would be completely adequate, and consume less electricity than any old PC. I still intend to do this, but a new idea has come into my head.

Linksys NSLU2 Linksys sell a curious device called the NSLU2. This is an odd-looking box about 5 by 3 inches, which contains a small PC running Linux. The box features an Ethernet port and two USB2 ports for hard drives. You simply plug it into your network. plug in one or two USB hard drives, and Bobs your uncle. It can be configured via any browser on the network. The NSLU2 contains its own backup software and a file server. This enables it to manage the backup of network PCs, and much more too.

The fact that it runs Linux has made this a popular device for those enthusiastic about that OS. Consequently they have set about writing all sorts of add-on bits, such as a version of the Apache web server. Shortcomings of the system have been ironed out (and new issues added!) so that the NSLU2 becomes quite a powerful device. All this is open source as you might expect.

Anyway, I decided to make the first step by buying a USB hard drive. This took me a few months to come to a decision, as there are various types available, from very small to quite big. The big drives contain a standard PC hard drive, so a 250 GB drive is quite practical. You can even buy the hardware and add your own hard drive, I have seen kits going for about ten pounds which include all cabling and power supply, but no case. The case bumps it up to about 20 pounds or more.

The next size down has a similar concept, but use laptop drives. These are of smaller capacity at the moment, but consume less power and can usually manage to draw all they need from the PC USB port.

The smallest drives can be really small, even matchbox size, but are currently limited to about 5 GB. These take the miniature drives designed for things like music players.

As you might expect, as the size (and capacity) drops, up goes the price.

Well, the big drives were very nice, but draw lots of power and get rather warm. Some of the posher models have fans inside the case. So reluctantly I counted those out, and got a laptop drive device.

Firelite Hard Drive The laptop types are much more portable too. While I waited to either buy an NSLU2 or build my mini-PC, I could use it in place of my 16 meg Disgo device, as too often it’s too small for the files I want to carry about. So I bought a 40 Gb drive which would in any case be big enough for my backups later on. The FireLite drive has a decent aluminium alloy case and is quite small and light enough for a jacket pocket.

I have a history of getting USB devices that don’t work properly. Whether it is my various PCs, or just me, I don’t know. So with trepidation I plugged the thing into my PC (it was nice to find out that it uses the same type of USB lead as my camera and my Minidisc player). Hmm, nothing seemed to happen. I was not surprised. I picked it up and held it to my ear. I couldn’t hear anything. Oh $*@#. But then I noticed the little thing in the Windows tray, so I had a look with Explorer. Ah, drive I: had appeared. All might be well after all! I dragged my backup files, a few gigs, and dragged them to the I drive. The light on my new drive flashed a bit and went out after a couple of minutes. Job done!

The new drive is really quite impressive. It is pretty fast, almost silent, and runs cold. I have currently set up two partitions on the thing, a big NTFS and a small FAT32 volume, just in case I want to use it on a Mac, Linux or Windows 98 PC. So far I have plugged it into about four different PCs, it worked immediately in each case. So maybe USB works after all!

So, what’s next? I have been meaning to do something about my PC, wonderful though it is. Some of the other USB devices I have played with have been video capture devices. You might remember that a few years ago I wrote about my TV card that could capture raw video at a rate of 1.2 gigs per minute. The idea was to store the video as mpeg2. Well, this I can do, but messing with the captured video takes absolutely ages. I looked around for a much faster CPU, but of course its not that easy! While my motherboard can handle 3Ghz Pentium 4 CPUs, Intel have gone and changed the pin layout! So a new motherboard would be required, and I have also noticed that the PCI, ATA and AGP interfaces on my peripherals are all being replaced!

My current 1.5GHz machine is noisy enough as it is, and in this hot weather it belches out lots of heat. But then a nice, silent, cool machine would be nice. An EPIA 800MHz board needs no fan, draws less than 10 watts, and is plenty fast enough for everything except video. Mind you, the Mac Mini is also silent and small, and it might turn me into a Mac person. And there is also a glut of cheap, decent specced notebook PCs about at the moment. Decisions, decisions. Just as well I’m broke.

Photo Gallery

No film or music reviews this time, but here are a few photos of recent happenings. My thanks to Nick for taking some of them.

Some pictures taken by various members at our Special Event Station run at the Stoke Poges Village Fete on June 19th. A very hot, sunny day, with poor radio conditions, but a good time was had by all. The light wind was strong enough to lift up the gazebo, however after minor repairs we tied it to the fence and staked it into the ground!
HF Night on April 18th. Above On July the 20th and 21st once again I did my ring stewards act at the Iver Horse Show. Here is one of the miniature horses, alongside it's normally sized handler!
Left A scene from the McMichael Rally 2005. Another hot day, with winds that demolished a stand and tossed chairs about in the neighbouring rugby match