Tuesday, 27 September, 2005

The Truth about 9/11?

I ran across www.911truth.org today.  I've purposely not linked it because I don't want referrals from my site to end up in their referral logs.  I get enough spam, thank you very much.  If you want to see what it's all about you'll have to type that into your Web browser.

911 is a conspiracy theorist's dream, and it seems that every possible conspiracy theory is at least mentioned on the 911Truth site.  The surprising thing about the site is that it's reasonably well designed and the writing is actually coherent.  Most of the conspiracy theory sites I've seen are ugly as sin and filled with unintelligible ranting--usually of the "impeach Bush now" variety.

There's no doubt in my mind that there's a whole lot our government (in the form of military and intelligence agencies) isn't telling about the events leading to and the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.  But nothing in my research gives any indication that they're purposely covering up evidence of our or our allies' involvement in planning or carrying out the attacks.  People will believe anything, though, and 911Truth is full of whoppers:

  • The CIA and other intelligence agencies saw the signs but were ordered not to do anything about it.
  • The Bush administration helped plan and facilitate the attacks as a means to push us into war.
  • The World Trade Center buildings were packed with explosives days or weeks before the alleged attacks.  Yes, our government deliberately destroyed those buildings.
  • No airplanes actually hit the WTC, the Pentagon, or crashed in Pennsylvania.

That's just a sampling.  There's something for almost everybody in there.  I'm surprised I haven't read anything about space aliens using their death rays to vaporize the buildings.  It'd be perfect:  abduct every passenger from the jet and crash it into a large building to hide the fact of the missing bodies.  As a bonus, you can abduct a large number of the building's occupants with impunity.  That makes as much sense as any of the conspiracy theories I've read.

There's even an article titled "Conspiracy Theorist" that questions the government's and the media's use of that label.  But sometimes a kook is a kook.  These guys are nuttier than the fixed earthers.

Sunday, 25 September, 2005

Hurricane Rita no-show in Central Texas

Rita came ashore as a category three hurricane early Saturday morning near the Texas/Louisiana border.  You can read about the effects from one of the many news sites.  The news here is that we got exactly zero inches of rain out of the storm.  The wind picked up a bit on Saturday with gusts around 25 MPH, but that's about the only effect we saw.  The skies were clear and the temperature topped 100 degrees today while Rita was dumping its load of rain far to the east.

If you believe the news reports, somewhere between two million and three million people headed inland from the coast as Rita approached.  Traffic jams, fuel shortages, lack of accommodations, and general frustration seemed to be the order of the day as nearly every hotel room in the entire state of Texas was filled.  My neighbors next door had about 20 extended family members staying for a couple of days.

Our Amateur Radio Emergency Services group provided communications at the local emergency operations centers and also at some area hospitals that were very busy taking care of those evacuees who needed medical attention.  I won't say that things went off without a hitch, but they went smoothly.  In fact, despite the traffic jams and a few relatively minor problems, I'd say that the entire evacuation of the coast went much better than expected.  Moving two million people in just a couple of days is a difficult proposition.

I've seen some commentary on the Web that I find somewhat humorous.  People are ranting about others complaining that the evacuation was unnecessary.  I could understand the rant except that I haven't seen anybody seriously claim that the evacuation was uncalled for.  So what we have is a bunch of crazies ranting about something they think others will say.  Some people have way too much time on their hands.

Saturday, 24 September, 2005

DXing

I've been  playing with my HF radio lately, testing out the new 40 meter dipole and seeing how it performs on the different bands.  This evening I was working the higher bands.  I managed to talk with a station in Japan (JI1TMH) on 17 meters, and later on 15 meters I talked with a guy (ZK1JD) located on the South Cook Islands in the South Pacific and a station (P43E) on the island of Aruba in the Caribbean.  In addition, I heard but was unable to work stations in Hong  Kong, Alaska, Hawaii, New Zealand, Italy, and South Africa.  I was unable to work the stations because I couldn't get through the pileup of other stations trying to work them.  My puny little 100 watt signal coming off a low dipole just doesn't have the punch to get through on top of a guy running 1000 watts into a directional antenna that focuses most of the power into a very narrow band.  I can get through a pileup, but it takes lots of time.

Think about that for a moment:  100 watts.  The guy in the Cook Islands was running 100 watts and his signal here was strong and readable, as was mine there.  100 watts is the same amount of power drawn by a common household lightbulb.  That much power coming out of my radio and out onto a piece of wire strung above my garage transmits a signal that goes to the other side of the world (Round Rock to South Cook is about 5300 miles).  While I was waiting in line to talk to ZK1JD, I heard him talking with a QRP (low power) station in the U.S.  That station started with five watts and progressively lowered the power to less than one watt.  I was able to hear him until he dropped below three watts, but Jim in Rarotonga heard him even at his lowest power setting.

That's part of what fascinates me about ham radio.  It's possible, with very little power and even a modest antenna, to talk very long distances.  It just takes a little practice and some patience.  The best thing is that I can put it down whenever I want and come back to it tomorrow, next week, or next year.  It's a very undemanding hobby.

Wednesday, 21 September, 2005

Preparing for hurricane Rita

Hurricane Rita is at category five and spinning its way towards the Texas coast with 165 knot winds.  As of early this evening Rita is the third strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic basin.  It's more powerful now than Katrina was.  The projected path puts the storm on the coast late Friday somewhere between Corpus Christi and Houston with an intensity of at least category three.  We're over 100 miles from the coast so we won't get a hurricane.  But we're still expecting high winds (40 miles per hour) and heavy rain (two to four inches) on Saturday afternoon.  The projected track puts Rita about 20 or 30 miles east of us.  If it deviates from its projected track we could see hurricane force winds and up to 15 inches of rain.

Debra went to the grocery store for a few things this evening.  When she saw the full parking lot and the zoo in the store she decided to get a few extras just in case we lose power for an extended period.  The propane tank on the barbeque is almost full.  We have 17,000 gallons of water in the swimming pool and enough firewood to boil it all if it comes to that.  I can't imagine that we'd lose power for very long, but you never know.

As I write this I'm listening to the Amateur Radio Emergency Services net where we're discussing preparations and callup procedures if we have to go out and provide emergency communications somewhere.  We're expecting 25,000 or 30,000 temporary evacuees to start arriving from the coast sometime tomorrow or Friday.  It will be an interesting test of our emergency prepardness.

I'll be out cleaning up the yard tomorrow and making room in the garage for the picnic tables, chairs, and other things that the wind can pick up and toss around.  I'd hate for a picnic table to dent that pretty new garage door I installed six months ago.  I'm charging batteries, checking the flashlights, filling the water bottles, and generally getting prepared to spend all day Saturday inside listening to the wind and the rain.  It's going to be an interesting weekend.

Monday, 19 September, 2005

EPA Changing Mileage Testing

The Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of changing the way that they compute the fuel economy ratings on new cars.  The agency has long been criticized for publishing unrealistic numbers due to their test methods.  For example, assuming average highway speeds of 48 MPH, under-estimating the emount of time spent idling during city driving, not testing at temperature extremes, and not testing with the air conditioning on.  Even though the EPA's published information says quite clearly that the numbers are intended only as guidelines for comparison shopping, consumers and consumer advocates get bent out of shape when their actual mileage varies significantly (it's almost always lower) from the EPA estimates.

Auto manufacturers like the EPA way of calculating fuel economy because it's overly generous and makes the cars look better than they actually are.  In addition, the EPA numbers are used in calculating the federally-mandated Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards.  Companies already have difficulty meeting those standards.  More realistic numbers from the EPA would put every car company in violation of the CAFE standards.

This is an interesting case of one number (two numbers, actually--the EPA "miles per gallon" ratings for city and highway driving) being used for two different things.  As far as auto manufacturers and the EPA are concerned, it's "just a number" to show that one car uses more or less fuel than another.  Testing is done on dynamometers (treadmills for cars) that are calibrated to simulate real-world conditions--most likely ideal conditions.  The car never runs on real pavement, at temperature extremes, in real traffic, or anything else.  It's not a realistic test of how the car would operate out on the road, now was it intended to be.  But it does exactly what it was designed to do:  provide an idea of relative performance.

Consumers see those two numbers on the new car sticker and automatically think that they will get that kind of gas mileage.  "The sticker says I should get 30 MPG on the highway."  Most consumers don't bother themselves with the fine print that says "your mileage may vary," or bother to take into account that their lead foot driving habits and jackrabbit starts (called "stoplight drag racing" these days) might affect the fuel economy.  Something as simple as under-inflated tires, something I see quite regularly, can have a huge effect on the amount of gas burned per mile.

I don't see how the EPA can develop a standard and method of testing that will meet the expectations of both groups.  The only way would be to create a huge series of tests that take into account vehicle maintenance, driving conditions, and driving habits.  Such testing would be prohibitively expensive for manufacturers and the resulting table of numbers would be so confusing that consumers' eyes would glaze over.  The average car shopper would just take the largest number in the table, use that to comparison shop, and then complain when the car they buy doesn't meet the expectations.  Not that I'm cynical or anything.

A better idea would be for consumers to spend five minutes reading and understanding the EPA guidelines, and spend another hour or two reading reviews of the cars that they're looking at in order to get an idea of how the car performs in real driving conditions.  With that information perhaps buyers would have more realistic expectations and could make informed decisions when purchasing.

Sunday, 18 September, 2005

Hacking the hardware: Antennas

The thing that interests me most about ham radio is building antennas.  Sure, it's cool to get on the radio and talk to people from all over the world, compete in contests, and participate in emergency preparedness exercises.  Those are interesting and challenging endeavors in some ways but they don't supply the intellectual challenge of hacking the hardware.  Since I don't understand enough about electronics yet to tinker with my old tube radios and modern solid state computer-controlled radios might as well be magic, I gravitated towards tinkering with antennas.

Antenna design and construction is a very broad field.  Antennas themselves can be as simple as a piece of wire stretched across the ground, or as complicated as a phased directional array designed for bouncing signals off the moon.  Antennas for some bands are over 500 feet long and for other bands only a couple of inches.  There are special receiving antennas, directional antennas, loops, dipoles, verticals, and about a gazillion other types.  The ARRL Antenna Book is 1,000 pages of antenna theory, design, and practical advice.  It just scratches the surface.  There's plenty to learn about antennas.

Ham radio is beginning to replace computer programming as the hobby that I pursue.  Perhaps I got burned out on programming after more than 20 years of doing it as a job and as a hobby.  I'm rediscovering the joy of learning something just because I want to, rather than looking for the next article topic or development project.

Saturday, 17 September, 2005

A new HF antenna

When I passed the exam for my General class amateur radio license I started looking for ways to put up an antenna for long distance, high frequency (HF) communications.  Although I have a lot of property and few neighborhood restrictions, I am limited by budget and aesthetics.  Lack of funds means no towers, and aesthetic considerations prevent me from stringing wires all over the place.

I decided on a 40 meter horizontal loop built out of #14 copper wire and attached under the eave of my detached garage.  This isn't a particularly efficient antenna, especially when fed with 150' of coax, but I've managed to make contacts all over the U.S., Canada, the Caribbean, South America, Hawaii, and even Australia.  The antenna seems to work reasonably well on all of the HF bands above 80 meters.  I've used it on 80 meters but it's not very good for that band.  Horizontal loops do not perform well below the design frequency.

The most common HF antenna used by hams is probably the half wave dipole because it's easy to build and erect, and a pretty good antenna even when installed low to the ground.  Understand, a half wave at 40 meters is approximately 66 feet, and the ideal installation would have the antenna at least that high off the ground.  We have some big trees here but they're not that tall.  Still, one does what he can with what's available.

My 40 meter half wave dipole consists of two 33-foot lengths of #14 insulated copper house wire connected to a center insulator and strung between two trees at a height of about 30 feet.  The hardest part of the entire process was pulling the antenna up into the trees.  Because I wanted to hide the antenna as much as possible, I ran the wire through a third tree and snaked the coax feed line up that trunk to the center insulator.  With the exception of a 20 foot span over the garage, you can't see the antenna in the trees.  It'll be interesting to see what it looks like in the winter.  In any case, I didn't post a picture because the thing is terribly difficult to see.

All I can say right now is that the antenna works.  I've used it to talk with hams in many different states but I haven't had enough experience with it to say how well it works.  The antenna is oriented roughly west southwest (bearing 240 degrees from tree 1 to tree 2) so in theory my best performance will be towards 330 and 150 degrees:  northwest U.S. and western Canada, and the Caribbean.  Time to experiment.

Tuesday, 13 September, 2005

Housing Bubble Revisited

Last week's Round Rock Leader had a front page article, Boom coming with bust in Hutto as foreclosures spike, which points out that the foreclosure rate in Hutto (a small town about 10 miles east of Round Rock) reached 4.8 percent from January to September.  The foreclosure rates in Round Rock and Austin are 2.9 percent and 1.3 percent, respectively.  Why such a big difference?

Not surprisingly, the primary cause of the foreclosures is first-time home buyers purchasing homes with incentives and deals they are unfamiliar with and can't afford.  The two most popular incentives are zero down, and interest rate buy downs.  Especially with the buy down programs, purchasers aren't prepared for the rise in interest rates after the first few years.  I mentioned this in my Housing Bubble post on May 28.

Something else that trips up the unwary is property taxes.  For some odd reason, property tax estimates on some disclosures are based on appraisals of unimproved lots.  Land in Hutto is still very inexpensive, and the taxes are trivial.  But add a $120,000 house to the lot and the new homeowner suddenly is faced with a $3,000 annual tax bill.  That extra $250 per month comes as a rude shock to a young couple who is just barely squeaking by after nine months in the new house.

Ultimately, the responsibility for these foreclosures falls on the individual home buyers, but I find it irresponsible and almost criminal that home builders and mortgage brokers will approve buyers who they know will be unable to meet the commitments.  But builders want to sell houses and mortgage brokers need their commissions, so they encourage the unwary first-time buyer to stretch as far as possible.  All too often, the buyer ends up bankrupt and the mortgage company or loan guarantor (usually some government program or another) ends up foreclosing on and repossessing the property.

According to "the experts," the home building boom that continued through the recession of a few years ago and continues still today is supposed to be good for the economy.  I would believe that if all this new construction was being financed at least in part by cash--people putting real money into a down payment.  But that's not happening.  New homes are being financed entirely by debt, which is just putting off the problem.  One of these days somebody will have to pay.  It won't be pretty.

Saturday, 03 September, 2005

Movie review: Hitch

In the movie Hitch, Will Smith plays Alex 'Hitch' Hitchens, the "Date Doctor."  Hitch's job is to coach men on how to get noticed by and successfully date women.  Although the basic flow of the movie is straight out of the romantic comedy playbook, the content was original, funny, and very cleverly put together.  And to think they did it without resorting to fart jokes, nudity, excessive profanity, or sexual innuendo.  There are some references to sex, but it's not at all overpowering.

The movie opens with a monologue by Hitch, explaining "basic principles," while he coaches various men in courting the women of their dreams.  Scenes of Hitch with his clients are mixed with scenes of the clients with the women:  getting noticed, the first date, the first kiss, etc.  Then it jumps quickly into the primary story, which has two parts that become entertwined:  Hitch helping his client Albert (an overweight, insecure bumbler) attract a beautiful and rich heiress, and Hitch meeting and falling for a gossip columnist who, as one might expect, often writes about the heiress.

As I said, the movie follows the basic romantic comedy plot:  they meet, start to become attached, have an argument that surely will destroy the relationship, and then everything comes out okay in the end.  Unlike most romantic comedies, though, Hitch maintains an upbeat tone even when things get bad.  It also maintains the comedy throughout the film, with very few belly laughs but an almost continual stream of mild chuckles that anybody who has been involved in dating as an adult can appreciate.

I half expected the movie to devolve into a battle of the sexes with man bashing and woman hating jokes throughout.  That didn't happen.  There is one stereotypical woman hating playboy and a few somewhat cynical jokes thrown in, but mostly it was a light hearted and fun movie.  Pop it into the DVD player, sit on the couch with your spouse, and enjoy it along with some popcorn.  It really is entertaining.

Thursday, 01 September, 2005

Hurricane relief effort

I've been listening to the radio chatter about the hurricane relief effort.  In many of the affected areas, ham radio is the only means of communications with the outside world.  Power is out, phones are down, cellular and digital phone service is either inactive due to power outages or the resources are overwhelmed by so many people trying to call.  Amateur radio operators, operating strictly as volunteers, have set up their own equipment with batteries and emergency generators, portable radios and temporary antennas, and they're passing traffic.  I will probably end up working communications at a Red Cross shelter here or in Houston sometime in the near future.

This is an unprecedented occurrence in the U.S.  We're completely evacuating a major metropolitan area:  1.5 million people.  The majority of these people are leaving or have already left carrying just the clothes on their backs and whatever they could pack into their cars, SUVs, or minivans.  Their jobs are gone, at least temporarily.  They have no income, what little cash they had in their pockets when they left, and quite possibly no access to their savings.  Some will be able to stay with relatives or friends, but many--perhaps most--will find themselves in temporary shelters scattered throughout Mississippi, Alabama, Texas, Arkansas, northern Louisiana, and other places.  This is going to be a long term relief effort:  months for sure, and some people will be living in temporary housing for a year or more.

It's easy to get distracted by the chaos:  looting, shooting at emergency and safety workers, thousands of people still trapped in their attics, lack of goods and services, and all the bad things that people do to others.  It seems that our fascination for the bad is some kind of internal relief:  "There but for the grace of God, go I."

It's more difficult, but also more satisfying and helpful, to concentrate on what you can do to help.  Donate time to a local shelter, or stop by the shelter on your way to work with some food, clean bedding, or other needed supplies.  Money is helpful, sure, but most of the people in those shelters don't need money right now.  They need basic necessities like food, diapers for their babies, toilet paper, clean towels, and something to keep their minds off the terrible situation they've found themselves in.

Please, do what you can to help out.