Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Handiham World for 25 January 2012

Welcome to Handiham World.
Plugged in cartoon robot
The new is up and running.  I hope you like it, but I am sure open to suggestions if there is something you find that does not work. In the meantime, the old website is still alive, but it is at the URL  The two sites are different, but many of our users have not yet registered with the new site, and will probably just find it easier to log in at until they have time to get set up in the new  So if you visit and find that your log in credentials don't work, the reason is that the new site uses an entirely new database and re-registration is necessary.  I have done this in advance for some users, but have not had the time to devote to manually entering so much data.  If you wish you can use the create an account link to enter your own data, but please remember that this is a Handiham member service, so I would appreciate it if you used the credentials you already registered with us for the old website.  That way, I can check against our database and approve your account because I will know it is really you, not some spammer who wants access to the site.  Most of our users registered with their callsigns, except for those studying for a first license.  Please stick with your existing username from the old site and, unless you have a different email address, the same email you registered with us in the first place.  Be sure you always keep your email address up to date.  If you are not a Handiham member, you may still enjoy the public portion of our website without logging in.  If you are a Handiham member and need access, please use the Create Account link and apply for access.  I will review and approve as soon as possible. 
Another change is that our QST audio digest for February 2012 is available to our blind members in DAISY format from the members section.  DAISY is the same special format used by the Library of Congress and other organizations providing specialized adapted audio to blind users.  It is a single zip file, the preferred method for download simplicity.  It will play on DAISY players and the the new Library of Congress player.  The complete issue of QST generally takes a month to a month and a half to be released from the Library of Congress, so our audio digest gives blind hams some of the time-sensitive information at around the same time print subscribers to QST are reading their copies. 
VOLLI, our volunteer hours logging system, has stopped functioning.  We ask that Handiham volunteers simply email Nancy their hours on a regular basis.  The best way is to fire off an email as soon as you finish a project.  For example, if you volunteer at a hamfest giving out our literature, when you get home just send Nancy a message letting her know the volunteer activity and the hours you spent at the fest. For recording a big project, such as an audio tutorial or a book for our blind members, you might want to keep a log of your hours and then inform Nancy of the total when you complete the recording project. 
The Handiham Radio Club and Handiham Volunteer mailing lists have both gone into the bit bucket!  I should have thought about that before changing the domain name, but I forgot that detail.  We still have the ability to set up mailing lists, so I will see what we can do.  That project will have to wait just a little while because I want the website project to be further along and secure before taking on another task. 
So that's my update for this week.  I expect to release a new General Class audio lecture on Friday, but we will see what time is available.  We are always looking for help from talented volunteers who can record audio, teaching into a microphone.  Be on the lookout for an upcoming two part "With the Handihams" series in Worldradio online about how to record using the open-source software Audacity.  It is cross-platform, running on Windows, Mac, or Linux!
For Handiham World, I'm...
Patrick Tice, WA0TDA
Handiham Manager

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Handiham World for 18 January 2012

Welcome to Handiham World.
Stylized computer network
Remember last week's E-letter and podcast, when I mentioned that the number one priority here at Handihams would be to fix the website? That time has come, and here is the reason why:
Typically on Fridays I concentrate on producing new audio lectures for our licensing classes. Fridays are also a good time to catch up on loose ends that have collected during the week. Doing website updates is generally a little bit easier on Fridays because I know that I will be logging into FTP in order to put the audio I have produced onto the website anyway, so why not do other web updates while I am at it?
Well, last Friday proved to be a bit unnerving. As I had mentioned before, we had been having serious issues with the performance of the website that had caused pages to either be unavailable or load so slowly that many web browsers would simply timeout. Many of you could not reach our files or would only be able to download a partial file. Needless to say, this situation simply cannot go on. Not only is it bad service for our members, but it can eat up a lot of my time as I try to work my way through the many tech support complaints. Sometimes I have a way to work around it and help the person get the files they need and other times I don't. In any case, Friday was not a good day for because it went down early in the morning and was off-line most of the day. I contacted the hosting service and they began to work on the problem which was on one particular machine in Utah.
Late on Friday the website did return to service. During the outage, it was difficult for me to work since I had to do everything that I could off-line and only later on plan to FTP the files to the website. Of course any members who needed files during the day were out of luck. Since we have had issues extending over months (though nothing quite this bad), we had already procured server space with Network Solutions, a respected company with which we already had a long-term relationship as our domain name registrar. I decided to start putting some serious effort into building a new beta website that would be the eventual replacement for the current one, but I had to step this effort up several notches over this past weekend.
When something like this happens, you really have two choices. You can either whine or complain about how awful things are and make excuses or you can look on circumstances as an opportunity to make something better. It is sort of like having your old fishing boat sink to the bottom of the lake. Yes, you miss your old fishing boat with all its dents and barnacles. On the other hand, you have an opportunity to get a new fishing boat and it can be exactly the kind of boat you have always wanted. A website is like that. We have had the old website for quite a few years now, and it has served us pretty well. However, over the years it has become cluttered with barnacles – too many links and just too much confusing stuff. It has become a little bit too dated and clunky to be useful, especially to newcomers who may be happening on it for the very first time.
Our opportunity is to build a new website that is easier to administer using Drupal 7, and to incorporate some much-needed changes. One new feature is the addition of a "Skip to Content" link near the top of the page so that blind users who are reading the page with screen reading software can skip listening to all of the menu links and go straight to the main page content. Another feature is a more pleasing view for sighted users without making the website inaccessible to blind users. And, of course, we are simplifying the menu structure to make the site less cluttered.
Our choice of Drupal for a content management system goes back quite a number of years when it was originally suggested by long-time Handiham volunteer Phil Temples, K9HI. We have been using Drupal 5.X and for the past few years 6.X. Drupal 7 has been under development for a couple of years and I have been testing it on my private website for quite a long time, watching as it matured. I feel that the time has come to make the change as long as we are redoing the website anyway. The new version of Drupal incorporates many features that had to be manually added to the old versions. Many administrative tasks are easier. We will eventually need to redirect to the new site, and, because of what we experienced last Friday, are going to try to do this as soon as possible.
As you might expect, there are going to be some problems. Any time you make a big website migration like this, coupled with a major redesign, there are going to be some things that might not work correctly or perhaps will be missing or not work at all. This will all take time to iron out. One thing that will have to be done is that we will have to re--register all of our users. I know this will be a major inconvenience for everyone, but it is really the only way to update the database on the new server with a clean installation. I think the strategy needs to be developed on exactly how we will do this, and I welcome user suggestions. I do have a data dump with e-mail addresses and usernames, so we could send out a blanket e-mail when the new site is ready. However, one concern I have about that strategy is that we may get an overwhelming number of hits on the new website as users try to create their new accounts. It may be better to use a targeted strategy of mailing perhaps 25 users at a time to even out the load. Anyone who has Drupal experience or who has administered a website is welcome to contact me directly with their comments.
The old website will still sit on the old server in Utah, but once the name is redirected, it will become unreachable. I will then take steps to reactivate our other Handiham domain name, The old site would be available there for some period of time.
One problem that I anticipate is that the Handiham mailing lists with the domain name will cease to function. These two lists are the Handiham Radio Club list and the Handiham Volunteer Instructors list. The Wednesday E-letter list and the Friday New Audio Notification list will not be affected because they are hosted at Freelists. I may be able to reconfigure the club and volunteer lists with address, but I would also welcome suggestions on how we should proceed with these lists.
Some of our users may be concerned about how this will affect the two Handiham Internet remote base stations. Neither station is connected in any way with the web hosting service and both are separately hosted on their own dedicated computers on Courage Center properties. Therefore, neither station will be affected in any way. We do update the remote base station status daily on the website, and this update will be continued on the new website as well.
Another change that will be implemented is the availability of more materials in DAISY format. This new format will replace some of the older MP3 audio for our blind members. This advancement will allow for easier navigation through the material for our blind Handiham members. This does not mean that we are moving away from human readers, so please don't worry that you will never hear a human voice again on! Some materials, if they are available in computer text in the first place, are most easily converted to DAISY format that incorporates a voice produced by the computer software. Other materials are more properly and efficiently read by a human reader and can be imported into DAISY by special software. Our original production will still be done by Audacity so that we can more easily edit the audio and still produce four track cassette recordings for the Handiham members who need them during 2012. Of course Audacity remains our editor of choice for the Friday audio lectures and for the Wednesday podcast. As before, the free podcast will remain available to the general public in the iTunes store.
We are hoping that the transition will go smoothly, but you know as well as I do that a project like this is pretty complicated and there will always be some unforeseen problems. In fact, to me it sort of feels like planning for and setting up for Field Day. You always anticipate how much fun it is going to be and you have participated in the planning process for past years and like to think that you know you are not going to forget anything this year. Naturally, when you arrive at the Field Day site and start getting everything set up that is when you find out that no one packed Styrofoam cups for the coffee and the power supply cables are still sitting in one of the club member's basement. That is how it will be for any new project and I am not going to be surprised when things don't work on the website. What we can do is to work together to make the new website project successful by helpful suggestions that include specific recommendations on how to fix a problem whenever possible.
So, even though this is going to be a real roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-to-work couple of weeks, I know that we are doing the right thing. I am encouraged by the American Council of the Blind website, which also uses Drupal 7 and the Bartik theme as its public portal. I also want to thank Handiham Radio Club members and Handiham volunteers who have visited the new beta website and given me suggestions and feedback. I really appreciate your help!
For Handiham World, I'm...
Patrick Tice, WA0TDA
Handiham Manager

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Handiham World for 11 January 2012

Welcome to Handiham World.
Cartoon guy carrying all about ham radio books.
What better time to review things that need doing or fixing than the beginning of a fresh, new year?  Here at the Handiham office we are busy getting our 2012 bucket list ready to go.  Here are some of our major "to-do's" for 2012:
  1. Fix the website.  This morning I tried to reach and it was so painfully slow to load that the web browser just gave up and displayed an error message. We have been encountering this problem more and more over the past year, and it is related to the shared web hosting server that we are using. More than once the hosting company took the site down, surprising us and causing me to have to drop everything else to deal with the problem.  Furthermore, I have received complaints about audio files not playing through.  This can happen through the loss of connectivity due to server overload.  The Fix: Move the website to another hosting service.  This project is a major one, and will result in a disruption of our website-based services, but it is going to have to happen sometime soon.  We will keep you posted, but before we make the move I would like to hear from you if there is some website feature that you really would like to have that currently does not exist.  In the meantime, if appears to be down, it may instead just be really slow due to overload. Wait a while and try again.  If audio files do not stream all the way through, an alternative is to download them onto your hard drive then open them.  If downloading is slow, try again later.
  2. Improve our audio recording quality.  We depend a lot on audio delivered from the website, both for our weekly audio news and for audio lectures for those who are working on a license or upgrade. And we must not forget about the audio tutorials on how to use various rigs, either.  It has come to my attention that some of the audio lectures are incomplete.  One, for example, is Extra Class Lecture 59, which simply cuts off at the 42 minute mark. An alert Extra Class student let me know about this, and when I downloaded the lecture to check it, sure enough - the audio file was okay up to 42 minutes, after which it simply flat lined to the end.  Checking my original MP3 file, I was disappointed to learn that it was also defective.  Unfortunately the original Audacity file was long gone, so recovery was impossible.  Since the Extra Class pool changes this summer, we have decided to just leave the defective file in place and concentrate on solving these kinds of quality issues with the new recordings that will begin as soon as the 2012 Extra Class pool is released.  To improve our audio, we will be updating Audacity and tweaking the settings.  We will also be using a new version of the Lame encoder for MP3 production.  Because volunteers also produce audio for us at their own homes, we need to get more information out about how to record digitally.  A series of how-to articles on this subject will be appearing in Worldradio Magazine soon. 
  3. Upgrade the equipment at Radio Camp.  Recently I proposed that we acquire a new radio for training purposes at Radio Camp.  At the same time, we would buy a new rotor to replace a non-working old unit on the 50 foot tower at Camp Courage. The proposed radio is the Kenwood TS-590S with VGS1 Voice Guide module.  Following the camp session, the radio could be pressed into service as a remote base station using the accessible Kenwood software interface. This suggestion is under discussion on the Handiham Radio Club mailing list. 
  4. Assess the working space at HQ and make it more productive.  A visit to our headquarters will make you a believer - that we need to do something to organize the working space better, that is. A hodgepodge of work stations, storage cabinets, and donated gear that needs assessment greets you as you walk in.  We need to put some serious elbow grease into making our headquarters a better space for working and operating, as well as for checking radios and accessories out to see if they are working and to make minor repairs, assemble power cables and coax jumpers, and make sure that each radio has all of its accessories.
  5. Expand our Internet Remote Base capabilities.  The addition of a TS-590S station would definitely be an improvement, but what if we could add a DX station with a tower and beam?  That is what we will be discussing as we gather for Radio Camp 2012 in June.  In the long run such a station benefits our members whether or not they attend a radio camp session.  It is an essential service to offer remote base capability now, having begun as a quirky experimental project at Courage North several years ago.  Included in our effort is a revamp of the existing W4MQ software, which could use some additional accessibility features.  Since 2011 we have been hosting the W4MQ software project following the untimely death at age 58 of Bob Arnold, N2JEU, who had been hosting it for the past couple of years. 
  6. Prepare a new Extra Class lecture series.  As mentioned, the question pool changes on July 1.  The Extra Class lecture series, designed to be blind-friendly and accessible to Handiham members with reading disabilities, takes an enormous amount of time to produce.  Based on a variety of references, it will take the student through the concepts and not simply a reading of a textbook or the question pool. I hope to get through it more quickly this time and with better audio.  
  7. Plan for the future.  In the past we have periodically called on volunteers who serve as members of an advisory board. It is time once again to bring the Handiham Advisory Board back to life so that we can be sure we are hearing from our members as we plan our way forward into the next few years.  Obviously technology is changing, and our services must change with it.  I can't see the future any better than the next person, but one thing I have learned from experience is that there is usually wisdom and insight to be gained by bringing knowledgeable people together to tackle projects like this.  Any one person has limitations based on their likes and dislikes.  In a group, we will have a chance to bring forward new ideas, hash them through, and decide where we need to place our efforts.  This is timely, since I will turn 64 in April and will eventually retire.  While that may not happen for a few years, we need to plan now for a smooth transition, and that can't really take place easily without a "future plan" of where the Handiham program should be in the years ahead. 
  8. Leverage social media.  With other amateur radio organizations and services already in the game, we have some catching up to do.  The Handiham program does not have a Facebook or Google Plus presence, and it is no longer possible to ignore these powerful marketing tools. Courage Center, our parent nonprofit company, and Courage Center Camps (of which we are part) both have Facebook pages. Figuring out a strategy is key, since we would need to limit our administrative time on such an account due to limited resources.
So there you have it.  It's ambitious as lists go, but I think you will agree that these are all things that must be done to maintain the program. In due course I will be calling for help and I am confident that we can work together during 2012 to make Handihams even better.
For Handiham World, I'm...
Patrick Tice, WA0TDA
Handiham Manager

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Handiham World for 04 January 2012

Welcome to Handiham World!

2012 would be a good year to revisit our Handiham nets.  Years ago, before the Internet made linking VHF and UHF repeaters so commonplace, there were Handiham nets on 40, 20, 15, and 10 meters... If I'm remembering correctly.  The nets slowly dropped out of favor, and the prolonged sunspot minimum we experienced a few years ago was only part of the problem.  Today we have the slow speed 40 meter CW net on Fridays, but I have had some inquiries about SSB nets, and I have to say that our Handiham phone nets are pretty much dead. 
10 Things That  Kill HF Nets
Smiling cartoon guy wearing headphones
To consider what happened and whether or not it makes sense to go back to HF phone nets, we need to look at other things that are happening within Amateur Radio and society at large. Here is my list of HF net-killers:
  1. Lack of organization.  Any activity that involves a group of participants meeting at specific times for some stated purpose requires some organization.  To understand this concept, let's consider a simple job like mowing your lawn. You would be correct to assume that you can do this job yourself, so no formal organization is required. On the other hand, suppose you must mow a golf course.  Now you need a formal organization, because the job is too large and complicated for one person. The head groundskeeper will be in charge, doling out job assignments to a crew.  A net can also need formal organization, depending on its size and purpose. When you don't have job assignments or other necessary organization, it can make a mess of the net. 
  2. Failure to commit.  This is a problem in every club, and can sure be a problem when it comes to net participation. You need a critical mass of committed participants to make a net happen.  Not enough commitment equals dead net. 
  3. Distractions & competition from other activities.  This is a problem for every club, bowling group, TV network, newspaper, and amateur radio net.  There is competition on every front from something else, no matter what you are trying to organize, and that in turn makes it hard to get participants to commit to the net.  
  4. Crowded bands.  Now that the solar cycle is yielding more favorable HF propagation conditions, the most popular HF bands are more crowded than ever.  It can be difficult to find a clear frequency on which to gather for your net.
  5. Poor HF propagation.  Ha, ha, this is also an excuse for a failing net, because just as good propagation can result in crowded bands, bad propagation can result in empty bands. You have to hear them if you want to work them, goes the old saying. 
  6. QRM.  This annoyance has been around as long as anyone can remember, but it can kill a net if the net participants don't know how to manage it. Who wants to listen to all that noise and interference? 
  7. Poor net control technique.  Oh, man - don't get me started.  A net control station that cannot control the net is a real turn-off for many would be participants. 
  8. Bad marketing.  If no one knows about the net, it is unlikely to grow and prosper. You can't leave it to chance that people will simply run across the net by tuning around the bands, although that sometimes does happen. 
  9. Lack of flexibility.  Everyone knows that people have lots going on in their lives and that they cannot make every net session. HF conditions change all the time. Sometimes there may be another QSO on the net frequency. If the net does not have flexibility built into it, these problems can turn into a failed net.
  10. Not having a plan.  What if the frequency is already in use?  What if the scheduled Net Control Station does not show up? What if the band is dead?  If there is no plan to deal with such things, the net can fold like a tent in the wind!
Fortunately, we have an excellent Echolink net that meets daily. We can take a look at what planning and organization along with good marketing have accomplished to keep that net healthy, and perhaps apply some of those same principles to building an HF net.   We need to develop a plan.  Handiham Radio Club President Ken, KB3LLA, has sent out a query to gauge interest via the Handiham Radio Club email reflector. If there is enough interest, we can decide what kind of a net it will be and what bands and times should be considered. Our Echolink net does not have to deal with the challenges of poor band conditions, solar cycles, and QRM (usually). Those things can make HF unpredictable, so we need to have a plan to deal with the "what if's".  Net Control of an HF net can be similar to running an Echolink net, but each has its own special challenges and requires learning how to handle them.  For example, handling a station checking in without proper identification might be similar no matter what the net.  On the other hand, while an Echolink NCS needs to know about the quirky delays built into VoIP communications, an HF NCS would consider it essential to understand how changing HF conditions shape the band as daylight turns to night.  Since we have all been away from SSB Handiham net operation for years, we probably need to include some basic training for everyone, and that includes participants as well as net controls.  
And what if we end up on 17 meters?  The unspoken word is that there are no formal nets on that band, but we had quite a successful run of "non-net get-togethers" on 17 organized by Alan, K2WS. When the sunspot numbers tanked, the band was dead most of the time and the "get-together" went off the air.  17 is hopping today, so another "non-net get-together" is worth considering. It needs no formal NCS, only committed participants.  Talk about easy!
The choice of bands requires some thought.  HF being what it is, we will not be able to include people around the world as we do now with Echolink and IRLP. And there are trade-offs.  Let's consider a 75 meter net as an example.  There are plenty of open frequencies on 75 meters during the day, but band conditions are such that only a few hundred miles can be covered, and many potential participants have to be at work during the day and cannot check in except on a rare day off.  If the net is moved to the evening hours so that people who work can check in, by then the band has lengthened out and many hundreds of miles can be covered.  That makes the band much more crowded. QRM is more likely to be a problem. Furthermore, because propagation on 75 m is so tied to the amount of daylight, seasonal changes in propagation are profound. In the summer, there is high absorption from so much sunlight and the band can be quite dead for many hours during the long days. 
When you consider the nature of the HF bands, "reliability" is not the first word that comes to mind.  Conditions change all the time, sometimes very quickly. We may need to consider different frequency bands and different times to provide alternatives and to bring the HF net experience to more people.  If you are not on the Handiham Radio Club mailing list and want to weigh in, just send me an email. In the meantime, you can enjoy the Friday CW Net: 7.112 MHz CW, 09:00 - 12:00 ET.  And don't forget the daily Echolink net!  
For Handiham World, I'm...
Patrick Tice
Handiham Manager