Homefront

This is not going to be a particularly pleasant post to compose, but I feel that I owe it to those of you who I interact with regularly to give you some kind of status update. Pardon the light use of uncouth colloquialisms.

As of right now, I am not able to publicly be specific about certain aspects of this situation, as it involves someone other than myself. There may be a time when I am able to share more of the story. Maybe not. I'm not trying to be coy in order to build mystery for sympathy points. There are plenty of terrible people on the Internet, and I want to have a firm grasp on the situation and have my emotions in check before I decide when or if to give specifics on a public blog.

Our household has been hit with some really big, life-altering news. Our family is still intact, no one has passed away, but things are going to be different from now on. It's not catastrophic, but it does alter our course going forward fairly dramatically. No one has wronged us; it's just one of those things that the universe dumps in your lap.

Allow me to rewind a bit. Things were already on shaky ground here over the last month or so between a combination of being a lousy friend to people who I care about and having what felt like a lot of my support system outside of my family seemingly blow up. Momentum on the OpenBeacon 2 project was building up to a good tempo, and then hit the brick wall.

On top of that, I was getting to the point where I could not countenance the absolute torrent of bullshit on what used to be one of my favorite hangouts on the 'net: Twitter. The SNR in my timeline had taken a huge plunge over the last few months, and I had noticed that many of my favorite accounts had gone fully or mostly quiescent. It was getting to the point where I was getting outraged nearly daily it seemed, yet I kept coming back for more hateclicks. It dawned on me that this is not a healthy behavior. (Now I really understand why online journalism is in a race to the bottom with their constant shitposting.) As I've said before, my emotional intelligence may not be great, but even this fool got it after being bludgeoned enough times.

I removed all of my Twitter apps, closed all pages, and disabled all notifications. Done. Haven't looked at it for weeks now. There's a good chance that some of you have tried to contact me there and have heard no reply. I apologize for that. I just can't let myself get sucked back into that miasma right now. If I haven't already alienated most or all of my online friends, I can still be reached via the usual email.

Allow me to say that it has been pleasant to claw-back all of that wasted time from the social media timesuck. I've been able to spend more time reading novels, working, and pursuing educational goals. I'm not going to delete my Twitter account as I want to keep it as an archive, but between my feelings about the medium and the above-mentioned situation, I don't foresee myself actively participating in it any time soon.

To bring it back to where things currently stand, priorities by necessity are going to undergo a large reshuffling. I don't know exactly what the extent will be yet, but I should have a handle on things in a month or two. This includes Etherkit. I'm not sure what form the business will take in the near future, but it will have to change or die. I've got some decent work for Etherkit in the pipeline mostly done; it would be a shame to have to put things to bed before it fully came to fruition. I'll be putting out feelers for assistance and guidance. For now, I'll still continue to sell the Si5351A Breakout Board.

It's one of those times when you have to reassess a hell of a lot of things in your life. I'm laying low because I don't want to make further missteps. I hope that those who know me forgive me for going radio silent lately. I'm having one of those uber-introvert moments where I really need some time to gather my energy before reengaging. I imagine I'll ease myself back into some more blogging on the nominal topic soon enough; the volume of output depending on how things shake out in the priorities department.

Be excellent to each other.

Long Time, No See

I know. I was just starting to get some momentum posting to the blog on a semi-regular basis, and then — the drop off.

I am sorry about that. The Si5351A Breakout Board campaign consumed almost all of my work time. Given the limited amount of actual work time that I have, something had to give. So unfortunately it was blogging.

There's also a bit more unfortunate news, as well as good news. The bad news is that I don't foresee having the time to post as many posts as I would like, so for now, content will slow a bit. The good news is that is because I will be focusing my blogging efforts into the brand new Etherkit App Notes site at appnotes.etherkit.com. I'm going to be working hard to supply fun DIY projects that you can build using Etherkit products, starting with the Si5351A Breakout Board, and involving other Etherkit products as they come online.

In the meantime, it's been very heartening to see all of the neat ways in which people have been incorporating the Si5351A Breakout Board into their own projects. For example, here's a wonderful blog post and video from Mike N2HTT about how he constructed a multi-band VFO using the board and a 128x64 OLED display. I also received this link from Milan about how he use the board to clock his DVB-T dongle for SDR reception. It allowed him much greater frequency accuracy, as well as a way to slightly shift the ref osc frequency in order to see which signals are external and which are internally generated. All very neat stuff!

I won't let this blog completely fade, but I will be putting most of my effort in to Etherkit-related work, so that's where you'll need to look to find most of my new content. Thanks for reading!

Catching Up With Etherkit

The year is not starting out as well as I had hoped. Back during the beta test of the CC-20 I had set a goal to complete my revisions and be ready to sell production kits by 1 January 2012. Obviously that date has come and gone and I'm still not on the market. A few circumstances have contributed to this situation. First, the days available for me to work exclusively on Etherkit has been cut from 4 per week to less than 2 due to family member's work schedules being changed. Second, it took me longer than expected to tackle the bugs in the CC-20 beta; the worst being the high number of spurs in the receiver.

So where does thing sit right now? The next CC-20 board revision is just about ready to be implemented. I've had to move to a DDS with a higher master clock frequency and change out the product detector from a dual-gate MOSFET to a diode-ring mixer. One advantage of the new DDS is that I can greatly simplify the transmitter circuitry, but this will require the trade-off of a fairly significant revision of the PCB.

I have been getting my PCBs manufactured in China, and right now many of the manufacturing firms (my board house included) are shutting down for two weeks to observe the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year). So even if I do send my Gerber files to the board house, they probably won't be back for at least a month. In the meantime, I've decided to work on a side project that's been rattling around in my head for a while: a QRSS/CW/Feld Hell/Etc. beacon. Also, in response to a lot of positive response that I have received from my simple Twin-T code practice oscillator, I also spent a few days revising the circuit to make the output a bit more robust and then created a PCB for the circuit in Kicad so I could transition my EDA to an actively developed software package (I was using TinyCAD/FreePCB previously, which seems to be pretty much a dead end).

OpenBeacon Prototype
OpenBeacon Prototype

So allow me to tell you a bit more about the beacon project. For now, I've decided to dub it OpenBeacon (I know, so very original). But there is a decent reason for the name. Much like the CC-Series, I intend for this project to fill a niche in the market that is very empty right now. The list of notable open source/open hardware kits out in the market is very small. The only one I think of off the top of my head is OpenQRP. As far as QRSS kits, I'm only aware of the one from the talented Hans Summers. My goal for this project is to provide a kit that is open, extensible, relatively inexpensive and simple, and ripe for user modification. Let me tell you a bit more about the project specs and how they fit into this goal.

Let's start with the bare hardware. The transmitter is a standard, vanilla Colpitts oscillator followed by an emitter follower buffer, which feeds a class A PA with fully adjustable output power (provided by a very cheap and cheerful part, the BD139). At full-bore with 13.8 VCC, the transmitter can put out about 300 mW into 50 Ω. The brains of the operation is an Atmel ATtiny85 microcontroller. The way that it interacts with the transmitter is via its PWM output, which can generate a voltage from 0 V to 5 V after proper filtering. This control voltage is fed to a reversed-biased LED which acts as a varactor to tune the oscillator in very tiny amounts (< 10 Hz). The PWM output is essentially an 8-bit DAC, so not only can the varactor be flipped between 0 V and 5 V, but it can be set to many intermediate values, which allows for things like Feld Hell and just about any kind of graphic or glyph you can think of to be transmitted. The transmitter PA is also keyed with a PNP transistor which is controlled by the ATtiny85, which allows the OpenBeacon to operate in standard CW beacon mode.

The main way in which this project will meet the goals I stated above is in its user interface. There is a handy open source project called V-USB which gives USB interface capability to AVR microcontrollers that do not have USB built-in. This allows me to wire a USB port to the ATtiny85 and have the V-USB firmware take care of all the ugly business behind the scenes so that I can focus on interfacing the OpenBeacon to a PC. With a simple command line program, the user will have the ability to switch between the many operating modes available, set his own callsign and beacon message without having to have the microcontroller programmed for him, upload custom glyphs to be transmitter, and monitor the status of the beacon. No need to mess with jumpers or in-circuit programmers (although the ISP port will be available for those who want to hack their OpenBeacon). The client program is written in C and should be able to be compiled for Linux, Windows, and OS X machines.

KI6FEN Grabber Capture
KI6FEN Grabber Capture

Right now, the prototype is pretty much complete save a few minor tweaks. Yesterday, I got the code for the CW modes completed and put the beacon on the air in DFCW 6 second dit mode just above 10.140010 MHz. Conditions weren't great, but I did manage to get a few weak captures on the KL7UK grabber and one from KI6FEN via Twitter. The signal was way too wide and extremely drifty, but I've solved those problems by changing the coupling capacitor between the LED varactor and the oscillator and by creating a rudimentary thermal chamber for the beacon out of pink antistatic foam. I'll be leaving the beacon on for the next few days when I'm not working on the project (which will be most of the day). Any reception reports would be greatly appreciated!

So the plan is to get the CC-Series PCB revisions hopefully done by next weekend so that they can be sent off to the board house before their vacation is over. In my little bits of downtime, I'll continue work on the code for the OpenBeacon. The plan for this project is to get the PCBs cranked out very quickly. Now that I'm familiar with Kicad, I think it won't be too difficult or take too long to design the boards. I'm also going to be trying out a new PCB vendor which promises much cheaper prices and faster turnaround times on smaller boards such as this. With any luck, I can fast-track OpenBeacon testing and production and have it out while the CC-Series is in it's final beta test. Stay tuned, this is make-or-break time!

Another Harmonic

11 - 1

I can finally let the cat out of the bag. As I alluded to on Google+ a few weeks ago, lots of stuff was happening behind the scenes here. One of the biggest pieces of news I can now share with the world. You can probably tell from the image above: we're having another baby! Noah gets to be a big brother!

We got another small surprise today. The initial due date was estimated to be in the 2nd week of March. Jennifer went in for an ultrasound today so that her OB/GYN could estimate the baby's gestation age better and it turns out that the baby is a bit further along than we thought. The new due date is the 3rd week in February. If this one is anything like Noah, he or she might be late, so there's a chance this could be a leap year baby. Cool!

It's going to be nuts having two little ones close to the same age running around here, but we both wanted Noah to have a sibling close in age. Besides, I'm creeping closer and closer to 40, so I figured we better git 'er done now, so that the teenage kids don't break my hip when we are roughhousing.

I feel a bit crazy trying to launch a new business, develop a brand new radio, be a stay-at-home dad, and welcome a new baby into the world. But what fun is life if you don't try something crazy every once in a while?

 

Still Alive

image

Here's a quick update from my phone just to let you know that I'm still here. I've been unusually busy trying to fix one last bug in the CC-40 that has been extremely challenging. Between that and taking care of Noah, there's been little to write about here. With any luck, the beta test will be going soon and things will be moving forward again. Check back for updates!

A Housekeeping Note

Thanks to some feedback from John AE5X, I've disabled the requirement that you sign up for an account on my blog just to be able to post a comment. Honestly, I had forgotten that my blog was setup that way, and didn't realize what a pain that barrier was imposing upon potential commenters. From now on, I'll have to approve your first comment to the blog, then any comments after that should be immediately posted.

I'd like to thank all of my readers and I hope that the new commenting setup will encourage you to participate more actively in the blog. I would love to hear from you!

Shack Mk. II

Here's a cheap & cheerful (or in the American vernacular, crappy) panorama that I just did with the open source Hugin software package. Yes, there are some obviously bad stitches, but it gives you an idea of what my newly updated shack looks like. I added the KADA 852D+ rework station, upgraded the shack PC, and got a shiny new 24" TV/monitor. Wish I had more free time to play with Hugin, as I love panorama images.

On the "Project X" front, progress is continuing. The firmware is just getting going, but as soon as I have a barebones firmware, I'm going to send out for my first PCBs for beta testing. Hopefully that will be within about two weeks. Please feel free to send along any questions or suggestions in the comments below!

Bittersweet

Friday, 1 October will mark a very significant change for our family. That will be my last day of employment at Tektronix (actually now Danaher). I've submitted my resignation so that we can do what's necessary for us to avoid having to send Noah to daycare. Due to some other, less drastic shuffling of schedules, Jennifer will be able to be home with Noah one workday, while her mom will also be able to watch him one day a week. The remaining days are now mine. With the high price of daycare, it's getting close to the point where one of us is working the majority of our work days just to pay the daycare provider. As a family, we decided that we are willing to take the hit to our income in order to have the wonderful opportunity to spend time raising our awesome son. I know that this is a decision that grates against societal norms a bit, but frankly I don't care. One thing in life I've realized is that we only get one shot at it and we better enjoy it while we have the opportunity. I don't intend to be one of those men who dies full of regrets about missing my son growing up.

I'm going to miss some aspects of Tektronix an awful lot. I work with some amazingly talented, smart, and capable people. It was not an easy decision to make, and surprisingly it was very hard to tell my manager the news. Management has cut staffing levels to the bone, so my manager is going to have a difficult time finding a replacement RF technician. For more than four years, I've had the opportunity to work with an incredible lab full of very expensive RF equipment and troubleshoot microwave circuits down to the component level. There are not many jobs like this left in the US. On the other hand, there are some extremely aggravating aspects of the workplace that I won't miss. Most of them relate to Danaher's purchase of Tek and the way that they have gutted and "rewired" the place. I won't get into that rant online; you'll have to ask me about it over a beer.

So what am I going to do for work? Glad you asked. How does the words "open source ham radio" sound? I will be dipping into some of my meager savings to capitalize a new kit company. It's a daunting task, but I've already done most of major components of this kind of work before, I've just never put it all together into an actual business. I've got a notebook full of cool ideas that I feel that I can execute, and the first one is already in the development hopper. I don't want to promise anything yet, but I can tell you at this point that it looks like it will be a series of simple yet fully featured single band QRP transceivers optimized for portable/trail operation (low current consumption, lots of handy features). I'll have a bit more time to blog very soon, so keep watching the blog for more details. Hopefully, the first prototype will be done by mid-October and I can get a beta test rolling shortly after that.

Where Did Summer Go?

It's hard to believe that the summer is pretty much over. Here in Oregon, it felt like we only had about 6 weeks of summer due to the very late winter and spring. We didn't even get a chance to go camping once this year, which was a real bummer, but we sacrificed it for a very good cause. You can believe that we'll be dragging Noah out to the woods for plenty of camping and other outdoor activities by next summer.

I'm a bit regretful that things have been so slow on the blog lately. As you can imagine, my spare time has been reduced pretty drastically. Now that Noah is a month old, we are all starting to settle into some semblance of a routine, so life is slowly getting to a new "normal". The radio hasn't even been on since we brought Noah home, but it looks like there's a chance I'll be back on the air soon. I actually do have a pretty big ham radio project bubbling on the back burner right now. I can't quite tell you about it yet, but it will be forthcoming when the time is right. I have a feeling that I will need some assistance with this one, so stay tuned for it. I'm also trying to clear up some time for the OpenQRP project, which is supposed to be shipping pretty soon. I'm excited to see this one get off the ground.

The Amp Hour

I did add a new podcast to the sidebar today. This one is called The Amp Hour (get it?) and it's hosted by Dave Jones of EEV Blog fame and Chris Gammell. It's quite entertaining, especially Dave's no-BS approach to the topics. They really had me hooked in the latest episode when they gave a shout-out to SolderSmoke. Give them a try, I think most of you will like it.

Last Chance Hammin'

Perhaps that's a bit melodramatic, but my time for operating and homebrewing is going to be severely curtailed very soon. Baby Boy Milldrum will be arriving any day now (the estimated due date is July 22) and we're in full-blown panic mode as we finish the last minute preparations to get the baby's room ready, make sure we have all of the assorted baby stuff that's needed, and take care of those homeowner chores that need to be done for the summer. So I figured that I should take some free moments to enjoy the hobby while I can. Sometimes I feel like every blog post here should have some really meaty and meaningful content, but perhaps that inhibits me from posting more than a few times a month. So prepare for this post and many of my future posts to cater a bit more to the short attention span crowd. I'll have to get my ham radio in small doses whenever I can, so expect a bit of ADD to set into the blog for a while.

Anyway, my inbox has been blowing up with DX Sherlock alerts telling me that 6 meters has been open most evenings over the last few weeks. I finally broke down and dug out the Buddipole components on Friday so I could try to snag a few QSOs on 50 MHz. I managed to grab a few SSB QRP QSOs with the FT-817 into VE4 and VE6-land on Friday night using the Buddipole in a simple dipole configuration. The band was in great shape that night, as I could hear a lot of East Coast stations coming in quite strong via multihop Es. On Saturday, I tried to work CW QRP on 50.096 MHz but had zero success even after calling CQ many, many times. The band was open and there was still plenty of activity on the SSB portion of the band, but CW was a bust. Come on CW ops, we've got to do better than this.

I still managed to make it a interesting ham radio night. After packing in the gear from the back deck, I went into the shack, flipped on the HF rig, and checked 20 meters (just around sunset local time). Very soon I stumbled upon the legendary Martti, OH2BH calling US West Coast stations. After a quick tune-up, I was able to snag him within about 4 calls. He was absolutely booming into Beaverton (by the sounds of it, he was booming into the entire western portion of the US). This was my first QSO with Martti and was memorable to be sure.

Moving on to a more unpleasant topic, am I the only one who things that most of the ham mailing lists are dying of a creeping mediocrity and groupthink mentality? The big two QRP-Ls are mostly a joke as far as getting an interesting, topical discussion going. On the other hand, start bitching about computers or some other off-topic old fart rant, and you'll get 30 messages a day. The SKCC group made me sick with its virtual pitchforks-and-torches assault on the new owner of Vibroplex because he had the audacity to replace the stamped brass identification plates with a silkscreened version. The way that a few prominent members of that group (including one who is affiliated with a competing key manufacturer I might add) character assassinated the owner was quite disgusting.

This provides a nice segue into another topic people love to hate: Twitter. I quit tweeting a few months ago due to the large jackass/decent person ratio that I was experiencing. I thought I would miss it quite a bit, but once I got over the DTs in a few days I didn't really miss it much at all. I still debate whether I should go active on Twitter again, because I see some utility in it; but even when you remove the jerk factor, it still feels like drinking from a firehose most of the time. Not to mention that huge time sink that results from checking your account all of the time make sure you are up-to-the-minute on the latest crap. What to do?

Finally, a plea. Some of you may know of qrpedia.com, which I tried (and failed miserably) to turn into a QRP/homebrewer aggregated blog and knowledge repository. It's already in sad shape, but with the new kid coming, I know I'll have no time to devote to it, so I need to let it go. I don't want to nuke the site because there are a handful of people who put a lot of hard work into posting content there. I would like to sell the site for a nominal price and have it go to someone who could give it another chance. Please contact me if this interests you at all. Prices and terms are very negotiable.