Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Handiham World for 29 April 2009

Welcome to Handiham World!

Last time we had a great piece by Trippy Brown, WD8OEP, on the virtual ham radio simulation that uses the CQ100 software interface by VE3EFC. I got to thinking about virtual experiences again when I saw a commercial for the Microsoft X-Box gaming system advertising a virtual fishing game. Fishing! With a game console! It is interesting to see what kinds of experiences can be virtualized, isn't it?

One thing that all of these virtual screen experiences are doing is taking the place of the real activities on which people used to spend their time. For example, I have seen reports that indicate that real hunting, fishing, and even golfing are all suffering from lack of participation. Does that mean that these games are actually causing a drop in participation in real activities? Or is it simply a response to a lack of time and money to actually go fish, hunt, or play golf?

Are we right to ask whether something like virtual ham radio will detract from the real thing?

Well, it's always good to have questions like that or we would be bored. One difference that I can see between the CQ100 system and a plain old video game is that the communication is still real, even though it is not over the air. Another significant difference is the requirement for a valid ham radio license for access to the system.

Take a few minutes tonight at 7:30 PM Central Daylight Time to join us and discuss this topic on the Wednesday evening Handiham net. (That works out to Thursday morning at 00:30 hours GMT.) There's nothing like a topic to keep a net interesting! The net is on the usual EchoLink frequency and node, 145.450 MHz in the Twin Cities or node 89680. See you there, and bring your opinion with you to share!

Patrick Tice

Handiham Manager

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Handiham World for 22 April 2009

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Welcome to Handiham World!

Pat in shirt and tie, holding handiham coffee mugState of the program: Where we are in these tough economic times.

Is there anyone out there who doesn't know there is a worldwide recession? It seems like the tough economic times have reached into every corner of the world and every part of our existence. You cannot turn on the news these days without hearing about some company laying off hundreds or thousands of people, some bank going under, or some other negative economic news. As you might expect, non-profit organizations and programs of those organizations, like the Courage Center Handiham System, are certainly not immune from the hard economic times.

So far this year we have had to ask one staff member to retire, and we have had to eliminate the job of "Student Coordinator", where Jerry Kloss, N0VOE, put in so many wonderful years of dedicated, caring service to our members, especially those members who were just getting started in amateur radio studying for their Technician licenses. Fortunately, we have been able to turn the Student Coordinator position into a volunteer job, and Jerry is still able to help us by working from home and welcoming those who are just getting in to amateur radio by contacting them on the phone or by e-mail. Still, we are down by one staff member in the office because of this change, and volunteers can have other priorities. That is a big trade-off, but what do you do when money is short?

Then there is the remaining office staff, where hours have been cut back. We have had to eliminate office hours on Fridays. Even so, on the remaining days we can still provide most of the same services that we did before, only it sometimes takes a little longer. But who knows what the economy will do over the next year or two?

One big program change was that we had to cancel our plans to offer a California Radio Camp in 2009. The money just isn't there. We hope to not just eliminate that camp session altogether, but the only thing we can do is hope that better economic times will increase the value of our endowment fund and that our donors will continue to support us. Like many other nonprofit programs, we have money invested in a fund and use the interest to help pay the costs of running the program. Since the value of everybody's investments is down, that affects us as well and means that less money than ever is available to use for operating funds.

Believe me, membership fees and the small amounts of money brought in by program fees and equipment sales do not come close to covering the cost of running the Handiham System. On the plus side, the Internet has enabled us to serve more people in a more cost-effective way. Not only can we offer audio and other services online, but the Internet offers a quick and easy way to interact with our members to get questions answered and things done much more cheaply than by using older methods. If it weren't for the availability of the Internet, I'm not sure that we could ever keep up with our work! Nonetheless, there are things that remain in our program that still end up costing a lot of money. We need a certain amount of office space, we have storage for donated equipment, there are the ongoing costs of running any office; things like the cost of the space calculated by square foot that we use within Courage Center, the various utilities like electricity, phone, and Internet service, and the cost of office supplies. None of that stuff has gotten cheaper over the years.

We are optimistic that the upcoming Minnesota Radio Camp will be well-attended and successful. The camp is expensive to produce and operate, but it remains one of our core services, as does the distance education in amateur radio that we have always done. There are other services that we have offered over the years that simply cannot be sustained in the future. While we can offer excellent amateur radio access through the Handiham Remote Base station running the Kenwood TS-480, it is getting more and more difficult to offer refurbished used equipment directly to our members on a loan program. There are a couple of reasons for this change. The elephant in the room is eBay, where used amateur radio equipment gets traded and sold these days instead of being donated to us. Even though we have a dedicated volunteer, K0CJ, who comes in every week to help us with donated gear, there is still a cost to maintaining storage space and using staff time to manage the program of donated equipment. Sometimes weeks will go by with absolutely nothing coming in. This is one area where I, as the manager of the program, must make the hard decision to change the fundamentals of this service. My feeling is that it is better to offer our new hams who pass their Technician license exams at radio camp brand-new handheld radios instead of trying to support the used equipment program. I would like your input on this. Do you think you have other ways to save money and continue to offer the same services?

Finally, I want to take this opportunity to remind everyone that the Handiham program has always been primarily a volunteer operation. It began that way in 1967 and has always depended upon volunteers to help with our mission of "hams helping hams", whether it be to get licensed, learn more about their equipment and operating, helping to get newcomers on the air, and helping people with disabilities make friends and learn how to communicate using technology. That remains our mission; the question is how do we best maintain our strengths to carry it on into the future? I know it is a downer, but we have to consider the budget and work within the money and resources that we have available. If we can raise more money in this summer's upcoming Handiham appeal, it will certainly help. I welcome your ideas and, as always, your support whether it be as a financial donor, active Handiham member, or one of our very much appreciated volunteers.

Now let's move on to our next story. To introduce it, I want to remind you of a really popular phenomenon these days: MMRPG's. You are probably saying to yourself, "What the heck is an MMRPG?"

Although we have mentioned this term in the past, many of us probably have no reason to really use it or remember what it means. An MMRPG is a "massive multiplayer role playing game". Typically, it is a video game with Internet connectivity in which many participants from around the world interact in the game's virtual reality. Participants can communicate with each other, take on roles as "avatars", becoming the character that best suits their personality, and work their way through whatever mission or purpose the game theme might include. These things sometimes involve quests and battles, individuals working alone or in groups, and, as you might expect in a game, competition for a high score.

So you might ask a second question, "What does this have to do with amateur radio?"

I'm glad you asked that question! An MMRPG involves communication in a virtual environment. Everyone who participates in the game knows that the experience is one of virtual reality, and that if you participate you are not really fighting swordfights and climbing mountains, even though you might be doing those things while you are playing the game. Still, you are communicating with others who are playing the massive multiplayer role-playing game. The communication is real. The experience is fun. And there is something out there for amateur radio operators that is able to provide a virtual amateur radio station in a world of virtual amateur radio propagation where multiple participants can be "on the air" as part of a virtual shared experience. This is the same concept as the massive multiplayer role-playing game, except that it is for amateur radio. The system makes use of the CQ100 interface developed by VE3EFC. So, with that little introduction, I will let an enthusiastic user tell you more about it in our next story.

Patrick Tice

Handiham Manager

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Handiham World for 15 April 2009

Welcome to Handiham World!

CCleaner is a great freeware utility for freeing up disk space

Screenshot: CCleaner is a great freeware utility for freeing up disk space

Image: Screenshot of CCleaner running on the wa0tda ham shack PC.

Free software tour: A free junk remover.

Last week we talked about the free file recovery utility called "Recuva" by Piriform Ltd. Today we introduce a great freeware disk cleanup utility made by the same folks. It's called "CCleaner".

John, N1IWT, mentioned that he uses CCleaner when he told me about Recuva. I had been using CCleaner myself for a long time and knew it to be an effective disk cleaning tool.

Here is the overview from the CCleaner website:

CCleaner is a freeware system optimization, privacy and cleaning tool. It removes unused files from your system - allowing Windows to run faster and freeing up valuable hard disk space. It also cleans traces of your online activities such as your Internet history. Additionally it contains a fully featured registry cleaner.

The fact of the matter is that most of us are not very good at housekeeping. Sometimes my ham shack is a mess, because projects and things that I am meaning to work on collect faster than I have time to tend to them. My computer is not that much different. Temporary files, deleted files, unused installation files and all sorts of other junk collect on the hard drive because I just don't have time to go through all of the fiddling around to find them, move them to the recycle bin in Windows, and then do a final deletion. Sometimes there are unused program files taking up a lot of space and they have made entries to the Windows registry that slow the computer down. This is the sort of thing that CCleaner can do for you. It can perform a semi automated cleaning, getting rid of a lot of stuff that you will never use and certainly do not need cluttering your hard drive. Your computer will be happier because it will have more hard drive space and the Windows registry will be leaner and meaner and faster.

One thing you should know, however, is that a program like this is not for novice computer users. You sort of have to know your way around the Windows computer before you trust any kind of maintenance software to delete files from your hard drive. If you know what you're doing, and are confident in your computer skills, I recommend CCleaner as a worthwhile addition to your computer utilities. It is for Windows computers, not for Mac or Linux.

You can find CCleaner online (see the handiham website.)

Now if only there were something automated to clean up my ham shack for me, I would be all set!

Next week: State of the program. Where we stand during these hard economic times, and what we can expect in services.

Patrick Tice, WA0TDA
Handiham Manager

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Handiham World for 08 April 2009

Welcome to Handiham World!

Free software tour: A free, easy to use, file recovery utility

Recova screenshotLast week we talked about XMLog. Today we introduce a great freeware file recovery utility called "Recuva".

I had been looking for a file recovery utility, and when I mentioned it last week, John, N1IWT, came to the rescue. He writes:

I wanted to mention a rather easy file recovery program I've been playing with. When I lost all of my data a few months ago, I had to search a discarded HD. I found a program called Recuva touted by the people who distribute CCleaner. The best part is that it's free and it works.

It recovered 1,000 files, some 10 yrs old! One word of warning: Don't allow it to "recover all" until you are used to it. Just do "manual only", otherwise it will recover even scraps. But it will tell you before you open a file whether it is good or bad.

Check it out.

John N1IWT

Thanks, John. I love it when you guys do my research for me! Here is the overview from the Recuva website:

Recuva (pronounced "recover") is a freeware Windows utility to restore files that have been accidentally deleted from your computer. This includes files emptied from the Recycle bin as well as images and other files that have been deleted by user error from digital camera memory cards or MP3 players. It will even bring back files that have been deleted by bugs, crashes and viruses!

You can find Recuva online. (See the handiham website.)

Next week: I might as well tell you about the other utility John mentioned, and which I already use, CCleaner. It sort of does the opposite of Recuva, but more about that next week.

Patrick Tice, WA0TDA
Handiham Manager

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Handiham World for 01 April 2009

Welcome to Handiham World!

Free software tour: A free, easy to use, accessible logging program

Pat with the usual coffee mugLast week we talked about two free screenreader solutions for our members who are blind or have low vision. This week, we introduce you to XMLog, a free, regularly updated, amateur radio logbook system for Windows 95, 98, ME, NT, 2000 and XP. It will also work with Windows Vista but, as the website points out, "there may be problems setting the correct execution options. If you have trouble check the Yahoo! XMLog group."

Michael, W1ECT, is the author and maintainer of XMLog, and he has clearly devoted a lot of thought and effort into making the software interface work well for everyone, including blind users. His dedication to offering this resource to the greater amateur radio community and continuing to support it is commendable. If you use XMLog and like it, there is information on supporting it on the website.

Logging software these days is far removed from early computer logging, when the personal computer was simply used to manually enter data in some kind of basic spreadsheet. Today, logging software interfaces with modern transceivers and recovers frequency information directly through a hardware link. XMLog is no different in this respect, and you will find that it supports most common modern radios. Rig support is listed on the main XMLog webpage, and I was surprised to see not only cutting-edge radios like the Elecraft K2 and K3, but also the Heath SB-1400! All Kenwood radios are supported, as well as most ICOM and Yaesu radios, as well as a few others. Frankly, this software is about as universally usable and friendly as it gets!

Some audio speech alerts are built into XMLog, though you do have to install the free audio wave files associated with the alerts if you want to use that feature. Otherwise, we consider XMLog to be screen reader accessible if you are blind. The interface is straightforward whether you can see the screen or not. There is built-in CW support and XMLog can display a separate window that interfaces to your packet TNC or to Internet PacketCluster nodes. You can have DX spots announced automatically in audio format if you use the voice alert feature for PacketCluster spots.

Frankly, I think that logging software is an essential part of a well-run amateur radio station. While you don't have to log every single contact, you are more likely to log if the logging process is simple and nearly effortless, as XMLog seems to be. The value of logging will become apparent once you start keeping your own logbook. You will be able to go back over your records to find a friend you met on the air, keep track of contacts for various awards, track your usage of various frequencies and bands, recall a call sign that you had forgotten, and use your operating record if you ever have to field an interference complaint. The FCC no longer requires logs, of course, but they are truly valuable nonetheless, and as long as you don't have to expend too much effort keeping them up-to-date, why not start your own station logbook?

You can find XMLog online at the XMLog website.

Next week: I experiment with a file recovery utility.

Patrick Tice, WA0TDA
Handiham Manager